Saturday, February 28, 2009

Titles aren't just the name of your story

I've been thinking about titles.

This is in part because I've been thinking about titles for my own work, and in part because I've been helping my friend Janice Hardy with them. Titles are important, and are often harder than you might think.

A few titles have come to me easily, almost automatically. "Cold Words" was one of those - it could not have had another title. Most others are trickier.

I generally divide titles into three categories.

1. Story element titles: these are titles that are derived from a character, an important object, a location, a setting, or a plot element. Essentially, these are names that come out of the content of the story. "Dune" falls into this group. "Anansi Boys" does also, as do "Interview with the Vampire" and "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell."

2. Story quote titles: these are titles that are pulled from the words of the story. These would include titles that quote poetry or songs that appear in the story, or some critical line that a character says in the story. "Kushiel's Dart" is one of these (this could also be considered a #1 type). So is "The Madness Season." So was my short story "Let the Word Take Me."

3. Thematic titles: these are titles that tell us something about what the story is about - but on a more abstract level. "The Sparrow" falls into this category (though it also could be considered a #2). So does "Split Infinity," and "Black Hearts in Battersea."

When looking for a title, you want to find one that is intriguing, contains talismanic words, and says something about what people can anticipate when reading the story. By talismanic words I mean ones that have especially resonant and evocative meanings. There are lots of words like this, but here are some examples: Infinity, Word, Madness, Vampire, Boys, Fire, Gate, Death... Each of these brings up a rich set of associations, hints at the kind of emotional experience we can anticipate and and gets us guessing what kind of instantiation of the concept we will find when we begin to read.

A really great title can be the first hook for a reader. A really great title will help the reader know what kind of patterns or messages to be looking for in a story. A really great title may even have more than one meaning within the context of the story. A "fine" title will tell us what the story is about, but may not add that extra level of insight.

I just changed the title of the book I'm writing. And I'm excited about it. I went from a story element title (The Book of Lives) to a thematic title (Through This Gate) - and when I did, I realized a couple of tiny changes to the manuscript can really help the title to point out the theme of the book. It's as if, after more than a year of writing it, I finally know what my book is about. I know it's right because when I think about how it relates to what I've written, it gives me goosebumps - and if it's not going to give me goosebumps, it sure won't give them to anyone else.

So when you're writing, or critiquing someone else's work, don't skip past the title or take it for granted. Take a look; see if it works fine, or if a slight change could make it really work for the story as a whole.

You could find an alternative that's really exciting.