Writer to Readers: A Question of Titles

Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan

Thank you all for a very informative discussion last week on naming characters. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot.

Spy from cold_So, if you’re willing, I’d like to take the discussion a little further.

For many writers, and I tend to be one of them, “finding” a title is as hard as, or maybe harder, than finding the story itself.

The style of a title is often suggested by the style of the story—tough titles for tough stories, poetic titles for romances and evocative fantasies, gritty titles for down-to-Earth/hardscrabble stories.

But what about this one: The Spy Who Came In  From the Cold?

Or Gone With the Wind?  I’ve read that Mitchell went through many other titles before finding the obvious winner.  How quickly would you pick up these others she considered:  Tomorrow Is Another Day, or Garden of G and ENot in Our Stars, or Bugles Sang True?

And then there is the actually rather simple murder mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Got to admit, the range of characters and sub-tropical mystique of the story did make the mood of that title not so unexpected.

So, what’s your preference in titles? Think of books without cover art and stories without illustrated title pages—what sorts of titles draw your eye and hand to one story and not another?

Ship Who SangIs it the title that addresses the overt action or conflict of the story? Or the one that suggests the deeper driving issues? Is it the explicit or the evocative? The tough, or the compassionate? “Just the facts, Ma’am,” or the poetic? Or are there other titling styles that I have missed all together?

Also, are titling issues the same for short stories as for novels? Or are they the different? And how might science fiction/fantasy titles differ from mainstream work? And from each other?Screamcover

The first SF title that comes to mind: The Ship Who Sang. Both evocative and a literal reference to the story.

Then there is “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

Looking forward to another good discussion!

About Paula S. Jordan

PaulaSJordan.com. SF/F writer. Former orbit analyst. Supporter of libraries and hugger of trees. @PaulaSJwriter

26 thoughts on “Writer to Readers: A Question of Titles

  1. It seems like novel titles are getting shorter (four words and under) and more literal, whereas a lot of short stories are taking chances on longer, more poetic titles.

    For me, I prefer titles that are intriguing. Titles like The Raw Shark Texts and The Gone Away World. Both are literal to the story, but bizarre at the same time. I picked up both the excellent The Devil All the Time and the even better Gun Machine based on titles alone. I think I’m drawn to titles that conjoin nouns in ways I haven’t seen them before. What’s a “raw shark text” or a “gone away world” or “gun machine.” I like titles that make me open a book to figure out why the hell the title works in the first place because of how strange it seems at first glance.

    • Yes, most of my ebook coding work lately has been for short story anthologies/collections, and the titles of the stories are often very long, much too long to use as a name for the file in the coding. And they can involve odd characters, too, like punctuation or numerals (3, not “three”, I mean). The short story titles are often very obscure and –I’m just a dumb reader– but don’t seem to have much direct relation to the story. It’s like they’re pushing it super far, “art for art’s sake”.

      • Oh, Hi Beth!

        I just posted my reply to Adam (below) as you were posting yours.

        It seems you agree on that trend. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be too obscure or too long, but I really hope there’s still room for somewhat longer, evocative titles. Those really appeal to me. But I agree with Adam that the short intriguing ones can also be very good.

    • Great observations, Adam. Thank you!

      You’ve reminded me of the way I pulled Dante’s “Divine Comedy” off a library shelf in high school because of the contradiction in the title. For a teenager that was indeed an intriguing–and mystifying–read!

      Thanks also for trends you’ve noticed in short story vs novel titles. Do you suppose that is a trend because it’s what people want? Or for convenience? And is it in all novels, or particularly in new e-book publications? Do you think an author could still get away with a longer, more evocative title?

      I know. I ask too many questions ….

      • One place titles are not getting shorter is the short story SFF market. I’ve been reading a lot of currently released stories these past few months and there are many long, long titles. I wonder how this works, or doesn’t, in regards to them being memorable. Genevieve Valentine’s recent “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” is another interesting one in that it is short but not necessarily easy to remember. A great story but one that doesn’t roll off the tongue if I’m trying to remember to tell someone this is a must-read story.

        • That’s am interesting trend. Maybe the authors feel that a short story title needs a little something extra to draw readers in what seems to be a novel-reading world. Though I have read recently that short stories are selling well for reading on I-phone and other smaller screens. Then again .. the longer titles could be even more of a problem on those small screens.Some conflicting trending there, maybe.

          By the way, do you go for short stories by writers you’ve known as novelists? Or do you venture out into unknown authors? If the latter … how do you choose which ones to read?

          • Most of the short stories are read come directly from whatever is being published in the latest magazine. I subscribe to Asimov’s, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and I read all the stories in each issue each month. That has exposed me to a lot of first time (for me) authors. As far as buying collections, I just kind of go with my gut and what I hear about them. I bought Karin Tidbeck’s collection Jagganath just because I was hearing good things, same with Karen Russell’s latest release. Another thing I do is go with editors I trust. Jonathan Strahan is probably my favorite and I’ve enjoyed each of his original anthologies.

  2. Titles of books are a really difficult choice. For example, Gone with the Wind is a brilliant title as far as I’m concerned having read the book because it for me refers to the almost overnight change to a way of life – I’m not saying it’s a bad change but just that the title depicts the speed of it in some way. Conversely Wool – which is a brilliant book, I’m not sure if I would have picked this up given the title if I hadn’t receive such an excellent recommendation. Wool. That’s it. Now maybe that’s meant to be intriguing and having read the book I am intrigued about the title – for me, does it mean that the wool was pulled over everyone’s eyes? Is it something much more deep and meaningful – I don’t know and it could be really simply but it still has me thinking. I like the fact that it makes me think about it still after reading but that’s with the warm after glow effect of having loved the book. In reality, if I’d disliked the book I probably would be more inclined to say ‘crap book and stupid title!’ So, not really being very helpful here. I suppose I could just think of a few books I’ve loved over the years and recently and see how relevant the titles are: Lord of the Rings, Rebecca, King of Thorns, The Painted Man, The Troupe, Neverwhere, The Hobbit, The Name of the Wind, the Moon is a Harsh Mistress. What do you think? I think the titles did draw me in for those books – like I said ‘Wool’ I don’t think would have done. It feels a bit random – a bit like calling the book sky or plate or bus. A bit too abstract i suppose and yet I would have missed a truly good book at that.
    Lynn :D

      • I would have thought the same, or maybe a sheep farmer story.

        Yes, I think they can get too obscure. Seems to be the one-word titles have to carry a lot of visceral impact to be good. Something like Jaws. I don’t really get that with wool.

    • Hi, Lynn. I guess it’s easy for a writer to forget how much more he/she knows about their book than the reader does. And also very easy to fall in love with a title that really doesn’t work for the reader browsing the bookstore/library shelves. Or the ebook presentations online!

      Thanks for that excellent example.

  3. I enjoy titles that directly tie into the tale, even if you have to dig a bit to get the connection – like The Grapes of Wrath. Not only is there farming, but by the end the reader is going to feel some wrath on the plight of the main characters.

    Also, I have a tendency to give books with titles featuring animals or mythological creatures and figures a second look automatically.

    • Me too, on both counts. I like finding that spot in the book where we learn what the title means.

      And anything with a creature in it gives me a double-take. “Hrmm… Grapes of Dragons… hrmm… must be an excellent read”

    • I like that Aha! moment too, And if you’ve guessed it beforehand you get the added pleasure of feeling very astute!

      It also makes a lot of sense to tip your hand a little as to the species of book it is–as in dragonlovers delight!

      I am sensing a real challenge here in getting all these good ideas into the same title!

  4. I don’t often look to the title to be the thing that draws me in, however a good title will often stay with me and make a book stand out. It would be easy to say that there is a certain cadence or rhythm to the titles that impress me but then it is hard to define why this title sounds that way and another does not. Titles I really like are “The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester, “Have Space Suit Will Travel” by Heinlein as well as his “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” has always stood out because of the curiosity the title excites.

      • It’s that inner ear again! It can’t describe why it loves a certain turn of phrase, but it knows it when it hears it.

        Yeah, translating poetry must really need to be done by another poet to give the original its due.

    • And all of those are longer, more detailed thoughts rather than an eye-catching word or two. Yes, they appeal to me too.

      I’d say that it’s beginning to sound like two (at least) different but equally valid titling philosophies. Gives a writer some elbowroom to pick what seems to work best for the story at hand. Which is a very good thing.

  5. Everyone knows by now that I’m madly in love with Joe Lansdale. I’ve read five of his novels now, and it’s fun to begin to understand how an author picks their titles. There’s a pattern for each author, C.S. Friedman has her own, as does Julie Czerneda. Lansdale’s title choices are usually two words, and some object of interest in the story, the noun for which is absolutely a 360 from any indication that this is a horror story: The Two-Bear Mambo? –> bears having sex on TV.

    What I mean is that his titles are odd in that they don’t evoke the genre, it’s very back-asswards, a trick, almost. A very much more relevant title might be “racist hicks bury people alive in a small town in East Texas”.

    But you’re right, there are certain words that evoke the genre of the book. A Horror book has a horrific title, and those key words would not be used to title a Princess and Dragon story.

  6. What about Primary Inversion, Paula? or Door into Ocean. Those are very much and can only be Science Fiction titles.

    How is this title issue changing with the merging of the sub-genres we’re seeing so much of? such as post-apocalyptic fantasy or whatever?

    • Right about those sf titles for sure. As to the merging of sub-genres, I’d say that the titles, like the stories themselves, will only grow richer and more fascinating with the blending. Also more challenging to the author!

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