What's your advice for giving a title to a story?
Published: February 23, 2012
Q: I’m tired of one- or two-word titles. They don’t seem to give the kind of insight into the story that I’m hoping my titles will give. But I run into the problem of making titles too convoluted. What can I do about this?
A: A title is the reader’s first impression of the work. It’s important that the title act as an invitation into the story. It sounds like you want to pique your reader’s interest in a certain way. Here are some titles that come to mind:
Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here”
Russell Banks’ “My Mother’s Memoirs, My Father’s Lie, and Other True Stories”
John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car”
Lars Gustafsson’s “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases”
Karen Russell’s “The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime”
Phrases, lists, observations ... they’re all grounds for titles. Many writers comb their story for a nugget of interesting and relevant language to act as the title. David Benioff’s short story “The Affairs of Each Beast,” tells the story of Leksi, an eighteen-year-old Russian soldier accompanying two veteran soldiers searching the countryside for “hidden enemies.” The title comes from a section early in the story that reveals Leksi’s superstitions, gleaned from his grandmother who believed all the animals knew each other: “There were secret conferences in the wild where the affairs of each beast were discussed and argued.” Indeed, the story does explore the business of individual soldiers, some more “beastly” than others. (Interestingly, this story was first published under this title in the literary journal Zoetrope: All-Story. When Benioff later included it in his collection, When the Nines Roll Over, he changed the title to “The Devil Comes to Orekhovo.” This title is drawn from a scene in which Leksi is ordered to kill an old woman. She tells him this story, an old story her own grandmother told her when she was a girl.)
Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” tells the story two couples drinking and discussing the nature and meaning of love. The title echoes this section of the story:
Mel said, “I was going to tell you something. I mean, I was going to prove a point. You see, this happened a few months ago, but it’s still going on right now and it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”
Carver originally titled this story “Beginners,” drawing from another moment of dialogue:
“What do any of us really know about love?” Mel said. “It seems to me we’re just beginners at love.”
Each title is apt, but some argue that the revised one has a little something extra that entices the reader into the story. Ernest Hemingway said a title should have some magic. Whatever you choose—be it one word or ten—make sure you consider that magic.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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