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.