You can do a lot with fiction. You can remove all narrative or all punctuation. You can go stream of consciousness and remove spelling norms and paragraph breaks. Cormac McCarthy removes the dialogue quotes. Do it right, and you can remove most everything in fiction and still have terrific writing. Except for one unavoidable thing: a title. Every piece has a title, to include those forever “Untitled.” It’s called something or else it ultimately can’t be something.
I’m doing a workshop soon for Sisters in Crime on short story writing, and I’ve been playing with the importance of titles. I know, because I’ve horked up some bad ones.
Smarter authors than me have held forth on title strategies, so I’ll just recap what I’ve learned by experience. A story’s best title is like the primed wick to its fireworks. It’s just sitting there, waiting on a spark — a reader or editor’s eye. Said best title catches said eye and promises to light the works. A promise it delivers when the thematic meaning and story unity plays out on the page.
For grins, here are three past stories of mine with their initial title idea, excluding working titles.
ORIGINAL TITLE: “Reprobates”
WHY I CHOSE IT: I liked its double entendre on probate, and multiple meaning connections are important to a killer title. This story followed a cast of nogoodniks wrangling for position in a dying bison tycoon’s will.
WHY I CHANGED IT: Okay, it’s plain I’m not a lawyer. By probate, I’d really meant the lack of a will, or a valid one. Dying intestate. The title still holds, given the various wranglings and probate technicalities under state law. Weak. Besides, this story wasn’t ultimately about the will. It’s about will, as in greed-fed desire and going too far in that pursuit. As in, someone’s body winds up getting fished from Nashville’s Cumberland River. That word Cumberland is also part of the cushy legal services package our POV attorney is selling, a contract that both giveth and taketh from him as the story progresses.
PUBLISHED AS: “The Cumberland Package”
LESSON LEARNED: Avoid titles that can mean many things not connected to the story. Focus instead on what wraps the story within multiple tendrils of meaning: plot, character motivation, place, resolution. This one hit all those.
ORIGINAL TITLE: “Tough Nut To Crack”
WHY I CHOSE IT: It’s clever, right? Every English speaker knows this turn of phrase. Also, in the early drafts of the story, two numbskulls were attempting to rob an old guy’s farm for a mother lode of hardshell nuts. Except they were the numbskulls and the farmer wasn’t, and every plan went bad Coyote vs. Roadrunner-style. Side note: walnut theft is a total thing.
WHY I CHANGED IT: Every English speaker knows the turn of phrase. It’s so baked into lingo that it promises little. Also, the nut farm heist idea had fallen apart in inevitable logistics. The heist made more sense–and was funnier–if I put it on wheels. So instead, our numbskulls try a truck-jacking that takes them a couple hundred miles across Georgia. Stealing pecans now, and in the taxonomic sense, pecans aren’t a nut. They’re a drupe. “Tough Drupe to Crack?”
PUBLISHED AS: “Crack-Up at Waycross”
LESSON LEARNED: You can be too clever by half. This version stitches together three signals of what’s to come: a comic tone, that it’s not going to end so great (a must for a caper), and the climax location: Waycross, Georgia. Setting, when itself a character in the story, can sing in the title.
ORIGINAL TITLE: “Throw Good After Bad”
WHY I CHOSE IT: It’s a catchy paraphrase, and with a distinct moral: Don’t waste good money trying to rescue a sunk loss. Both money and goodness are inherent to this story. Counterfeit money, a breach of currency and of trust. Trust more than money, since our POV only came into a small amount of fake bills but now wants justice. Our overly-obsessed victim risks her self-worth and eventually life-and-limb chasing the crooks. I liked the title fit a lot. The editors I submitted these early versions to, not so much.
WHY I CHANGED IT: It’s not particularly exciting, and it didn’t capture the story’s spirit. Too distant, too trite. And in working off those early rejects, I wrote deeper into the comic marrow. Embraced its amateur sleuth, found more of its comic humanity. That editing revealed the initial title as off-the-mark and worse, a snooze.
PUBLISHED AS: “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson”
LESSON LEARNED: Some tittles are just groovy. This one lit up as soon it found me. The words are how our POV refers to the counterfeit ten-dollar bills and a twenty she wants resolved, damn the consequences. This story is about her obsession with process without a sense of proportion. So forget the idioms and let her speak to the core of her thing. With any luck, the reader also hears the fireworks when those words appear mid-story.
Titles aren’t some appendage to a story. Titles aren’t a descriptor of their story. Titles are inherent and essential to the story’s whole, its reference point to our world. So finding the right one takes thought and time, as well it should. A title may not get a story accepted all on its own, but an off-note one means rejection doom.
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This was fun. At some point, I’ll do a look back at titles that didn’t change from the first drafts, why that was, and how that shaped the ultimate version.