It happens every semester I teach fiction, usually on the day we distribute stories for the first workshop. A student will raise her hand and offer the following caveat: “So I just wanted to, like, apologize for my story not having a title. I totally hate titles.”
To which her classmates will inevitably respond with a chorus of amens about how much they, like, hate titles, too! To which I’ll respond with a roar of anguished disbelief: “Are you kidding me? Guys, titles are the coolest part of the whole process! They’re like the cherry on top of the sundae! They’re the sign over the gate! A story without a title is like a doll without a head!” This statement hangs in the air for a disturbed moment. Then I launch into my lecture on titles, which I have titled: “Who Wants to Play With a Headless Doll? No One, That’s Who.”
I’m going to summarize that lecture here, and I’ll restrain myself from threatening to flunk you. Instead, I’ll entreat you (as I do my students) to think of titles not as a burden, but among the greatest opportunities you as a writer are afforded.
A title should serve three purposes: an introduction to the story’s crucial images and ideas, an initiation into the rhetorical pitch of the prose and an inducement to keep reading. It’s important to note that a title need not serve all of these purposes at once but the best ones manage to nail this trifecta. A few gimmes:
• The Catcher in the Rye: Salinger not only highlights the book’s most striking image, but underscores the preoccupation of his wry teenage hero—to save children from the corrupting artifice of adulthood. It’s impossible not to be intrigued.
• Pride and Prejudice: An oddly formal name for this exquisite comedy of manners. But Jane Austen was determined to stress the serious themes bubbling beneath the drawing-room banter.
• Lord of the Flies: William Golding forces us to reckon with the most disturbing symbol in his novel of boys run amok—the pig’s head that serves as a prophet of evil. The title makes fruitful allusion both to the Old Testament and King Lear. And bonus points for spawning an Iron Maiden song.
“So fine,” you’re saying. “Those dudes make it look easy. That’s why they’re famous.” Don’t be fooled. Sometimes the right title comes to you in a flash. Other times, you have to struggle.
F. Scott Fitzgerald spent months fretting over the title of his great American novel. He considered a bunch of howlers: Among Ashheaps and Millionaires (precious), The High-Bouncing Lover (all wrong tonally) and, most famously, Trimalchio in West Egg, the reference being to a character from an obscure Roman novel. The book would still have been great, even saddled with such a pretentious name. But it would have lacked the tragic irony of Gatsby’s self-mythification and the spirit of keen observation that Nick Carraway’s narration brings to the book.
At the eleventh hour Fitzgerald reportedly tried to change the title to Under the Red, White and Blue. He wanted to pound home the book’s connection to the American dream. But he went for something far too broad, a name that could have applied to any one of a hundred books. Thankfully, he failed.
Like any aspect of your fiction, a title should feel organic, not imposed. It should arise from the vernacular of the piece itself. Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” doesn’t just tell us what the story is about, but how it’s going to be told—in colloquial, prolix outbursts. The same can be said of Karl Iagnemma’s wonderful short story “On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction,” the chronicle of a lovesick engineer. Or Lorrie Moore’s short story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” which captures the oppressive chattiness of our heroine’s mother.
I’ve chosen these exuberant titles for a reason: to emphasize that there’s no word limit on titles. I’m not suggesting that longer titles are better, only that there’s no prevailing orthodoxy.
But titular mistakes are easy to make. Don’t name your story after a character. This is a failure of imagination. It tells us nothing we don’t already know. Don’t recycle the last line of the story. It’s like hitting the same nail twice. A title should do original work on behalf of the piece. Don’t use obvious or clever puns. If you write a story about a couple who can’t conceive a child, please don’t call it Fruitless or Womb Without a View or, worst of all, Grin and Barren It. Finally, don’t quote William Shakespeare or the Bible. How many tepid short stories entitled Brief Candle or Let There Be Light have I read? Too many.
Of course, rules were made to be broken.
How did William Faulkner get away with The Sound and the Fury? Well, for one thing, he was Faulkner. (It helps to be Faulkner.) But the quote he lifts from Macbeth’s famous soliloquy travels to the heart of his novel, which is a “tale told by an idiot,” about the loss of dignity, and the futility of life.
Or consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Why does it work? Because the book is about how Hubert Humbert transforms his stepdaughter into a fetish object. The chief indicator of his obsessive love is the lurid-sounding name he gives her, the one he rolls around his mouth like a morsel.
So where do great titles come from? For the most part, they’re right under your nose. I tell students to consider details, or even snatches of dialogue that jump out at them and that resonate.
A few years ago, for instance, I had a brilliant student named Ellen Litman. She turned in a story about a family of Russian immigrants newly arrived in America. Her original title was something like “How to Survive in America.” But as we went over the piece in class, we kept returning to a scene in which the narrator’s father, set adrift in a huge American grocery store, clutches a chicken “like it was the last chicken in America.” This image seemed to encapsulate the story: its blend of black humor and pathos, of bewilderment and neediness and courage. Not only did the story get a new name, but (at Ellen’s instigation) it became the title of her wonderful debut novel, The Last Chicken in America.
Another student looked to dialogue as a source of inspiration. She came up with the title Look Who Decided to Show Her Face, which captured the tough feel of the working-class milieu she was writing about, but also the tentative self-examination of her heroine.
Part of what keeps writers from finding strong titles is embarrassment. They may be ready to write a story, but they’re not ready to name the thing, or openly woo readers. They view titles as a form of advertising for a product they don’t quite believe in yet.
Well, folks, titles are a form of advertising. (Think about it: What makes you turn to a particular story when you read a magazine’s table of contents?)
That’s not an invitation to histrionics; it’s an exhortation. The search for a title should be a means of interrogating your story, trying to discern the heart of the thing you’ve created. It’s a promise you’re making to the reader.
If you can’t come up with a title, or find yourself relying on the gambits cited above, it might be that you simply need a loudmouth like me to enable you. But it may also be that your story or novel isn’t ready for the world yet. I’m convinced that the right title is like the right romantic pairing: You’ll know when you’ve found it, even (and especially) when it forces you deeper into life’s mysteries. [WD]
1. TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR MOST RECENT WORK. Underline the phrases that feel most resonant to you. Test them out as titles. Do any of these change the way you envision the story?
2. MAKE A LIST OF YOUR FAVORITE NOVELS AND/OR STORIES. Consider how the titles operate in each case. What work are they doing? What promises do they make?
3. CONSIDER WHAT EXPECTATIONS—IN TERMS OF PLOT, THEME AND TONE—THE FOLLOWING TITLES PROVOKE:
The Day I Became a Virgin; Blue Falls; First Month, Last Month and Security; Sacrifice Fly; Sylvia Plath Is My Love Goddess
4. GATHER ANY OLD STORIES LYING AROUND, PARTICULARLY ONES THAT EMPLOY PUNS, FAMOUS ALLUSIONS OR CHARACTER NAMES. Now burn them. Kidding! Don’t burn them. Think about how you might retitle them. —SA