Sunday, December 8, 2013

Choosing a Good Title for Your Short Story

Too often the novice considers the title of his story a matter of no import. He looks upon it as a mere handle, the result of some happy afterthought, affixed to the completed story for convenience or reference, just as numbers are placed on the books in a library. The title is really a fair test of what it introduces, and many a MS. has been justly condemned by its title alone; for the editor knows that a poor title usually means a poor story. Think, too, how often you yourself pass a story by with but a casual glance, because its title does not interest you: experience has shown you that you seldom enjoy reading a story which bears an unattractive title.

"A book's name often has an astonishing influence on its first sale. A title that piques curiosity or suggests excitement or emotion will draw a crowd of readers the moment it appears, while a book soberly named must force its merits on the public. The former has all the advantage of a pretty girl over a plain one; it is given an instantaneous chance to prove itself worth while. A middle aged, unalluring title ('In Search of Quiet,' for instance) may frighten people away from what proves to be a mine of wit and human interest. A book headed by a man's name unmodified and uncommented upon—such as 'Horace Chase'—is apt to have a dreary, unprepossessing air, unless the name is an incisive one that suggests an interesting personality.

Fragments of proverbs and poems are always attractive, as well as Biblical phrases and colloquial expressions, but the magic title is the one that excites and baffles curiosity. The publishers of a recent 'Primer of Evolution' received a sudden flood of orders for the book simply on account of a review which had spoken of it under the sobriquet, 'From Gas to Genius.' Many copies were indignantly returned when the true title was revealed."

"In 1850 Dr. O. M. Mitchell, Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Cincinnati, gave to the press a volume entitled 'The Planetary and Stellar Worlds.' The book fell dead from the press. The publisher complained bitterly of this to a friend, saying, 'I have not sold a single copy.' 'Well,' was the reply, 'you[66] have killed the book by its title. Why not call it "The Orbs of Heaven"?' The hint was accepted and acted upon, and 6,000 copies were sold in a month."


The title might almost be called the "text" of the story; it should be logically deduced from the plot; so a poor title usually indicates a poor plot and a poor story. This name line should grow out of the phase of the plot, rather than the basic theme, else it will be too abstract and general. It is so closely allied to the plot that they should be born synchronously—or if anything the title should precede the plot; for the story is built up around the central thought that the title expresses, much as Poe said he wrote "The Raven" about the word "nevermore."

At least, the title should be definitely fixed long before the story is completed, and often before it has taken definite form in the writer's mind. That this is the practice of professional writers may be proved by a glance at the literary column of any periodical, where coming books are announced by title when scarcely a word of them has been written. So if you have difficulty in finding an appropriate title for your story, first examine your plot, and make sure that the cause does not lie there. In case you are unable to decide among a number of possible titles, any one of which might do, you may find that your plot lacks the definiteness of impression required by the short story; but a fertile intellect may suggest a number of good titles, from which your only difficulty is to select the best.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An Example Short Story Skeleton Plot

Here is an good example of a starting outline for a plot (see Start With a Simple Skeleton Plot), for a story entitled "The Ambitious Guest":

¶ 1.
The scene is a tavern located at the Notch in the White Hills.
The time, a September night.
The place is in danger from landslides and falling stones.
The family—father, mother, grandmother, daughter and children—are gathered happily about the hearth.
¶ 2, 3.
The tavern is on a well-frequented road.
¶ 4-7.
A young stranger enters, looking rather travel-worn, but quickly brightens up at his warm reception.
¶ 8, 9.
A stone rolls down the mountain side.
¶ 10.
The guest, though naturally reticent, soon becomes familiar with the family.
¶ 11.
The secret of the young man's character is high and abstracted ambition.
¶ 12.
He is as yet unknown.
¶ 13, 14.
He is sensible of the ludicrous side of his ambition.
¶ 15.
The daughter is not ambitious.
¶ 16-19.
The father's ambition is to own a good farm, to be sent to General Court, and to die peacefully.
¶ 20-23.
The children wish for the most ridiculous things.
¶ 24-27.
A wagon stops before the inn, but drives on when the landlord does not immediately appear.
¶ 28-31.
The daughter is not really content.
¶ 32.
The family picture.
¶ 33-37.
The grandmother tells of having prepared her grave-clothes.
Fears if they are not put on smoothly she will not rest easily.
¶ 38, 39.
She wishes to see herself in her coffin.
¶ 40, 41.
They hear the landslide coming.
¶ 42.
All rush from the house and are instantly destroyed.
The house is unharmed.
The bodies are never found.
¶ 43, 44.
Even the death of the ambitious guest is in doubt.
You will notice that this working plot omits many little details which are too trivial to set down, or which probably would not occur to one until the actual writing; and all the artistic touches that make the story literature are ruthlessly shorn away, for they are part of the treatment, not of the plot.

This method of permitting you to study your crude material in the concrete will prove of value to you. It enables you to crystalize into ideas what were mere phantasms of the brain, to arrange your thoughts in their proper order, and to condense or expand details with a ready comprehension of the effect of such alterations upon the general proportions of the story. It makes your purposed work objective enough so that you can consider it with a coolness and impartiality which were impossible while it was still in embryo in your brain; and it often reveals the absurdity or impossibility of a plan which had seemed to you most happy. I believe that the novice can do no better than to put his every story to this practical test.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Start With a Simple Skeleton Plot

The plot of a short story should allow of expression in a single short, fairly simple sentence; if it cannot be so compressed there is something radically wrong with it. This may be called the "elemental" or "true" plot. It will be in general, perhaps vague, terms, and will permit differing treatment by different writers; yet its trend and its outcome will be definitely fixed. This true plot, in turn, can be expressed in yet more general terms, often as the primal truth which the story illustrates; this may be called the "theme" of the story.

Thus in "The Ambitious Guest," the theme is "The futility of abstracted ambition;" or, in its most general terms, "The irony of fate." The true plot is:

An unknown but ambitious youth stops at a mountain tavern and perishes with its inmates.


In the development of a plot from this germ into the completed story, it is often of advantage to make what may be called a "skeleton" or "working plot." This skeleton is produced by thinking through the story as it has been conceived, and setting down on paper in logical order a line for every important idea. These lines will roughly correspond to the paragraphs of the finished story, but in a descriptive paragraph one line will not suffice, while a line may represent a dozen paragraphs of dialogue; then, too, paragraphing is partly logical and partly mechanical, and varies considerably with the person.