Draw readers in with a title that demands engagement
Story titles are important. They’re also the WORST.
I’ve written elsewhere about how a title change was an instrumental part of the overhaul that took one of my decades-old short stories from an unpublishable mess to an acceptance by the first place I submitted it in its revised form. It wasn’t the only major change, of course, but it was significant. A story’s title is its identity, distilled into a single line. Which is not to say that a boring title automatically equals a boring story, but it’s certainly not pulling its weight. And there’s no room for slacking off in those critical first few sentences.
But some stories simply refuse to be named. (Which is how they end up being called The Doll for almost 30 years… but I digress.) So if you’ve found yourself faced with such an unreasonable narrative, here are some tips and tricks for finding the perfect title to intrigue, inspire and entice your readers.
Pull out an interesting detail or turn of phrase
If a title represents a little piece of your story’s soul, then a useful access point is clearly the story itself. Sometimes the narrative grows up around the title itself – like Xtreme Mortality, for example – which is great and all, but we’re not talking about naming stories that turn up pre-packaged with their title intact. We’re talking about those recalcitrant little sods that defy your best efforts right up until the moment you’re ready to submit.
For stories I write under placeholder titles (see: The Doll), unusual narrative details or phrasing it generally the first place I start when it’s time to settle on a forever name. A Depth of Years was one such story. It’s about a banshee. Guess what the placeholder title was?
It’s obviously about more than its otherworldly secondary character: it’s about healing, despair and recovery, abuse, strength, resilience, and the bonds that exist between women that transcend time and space. The more I understood about the story, the closer I came to a name, but I still couldn’t quite pin it down. Until I looked a bit more carefully at this line:
…and I realised that encapsulated the very heart of what I’d written. That was when it stopped being called The Banshee and took on the name that speaks to the very essence of the fierce protection she extends to a narrator who’s recovering her strength in the land of her ancestors.
Time Was by Ian McDonald is another great example. Easily my favourite of his novels, it’s the time-travelling love story of two WW2-era soldiers, as unravelled by a modern-day bookseller who’s accidentally got hold of the titular book of poetry that they use to communicate when separated from each other by time and space. “Time was, time will be again,” they sign off in the letters they secrete to each other inside the folds. It’s a phrase that holds the book’s poignant, soulful, longing romance gently in its hands and still manages to address the speculative elements that drive the narrative.
Likewise The Apparition Phase by Will McLean, the very best ghost story I’ve read in years (and I’m not easy to please on that front). Ostensibly, the title refers to a stage of a haunting under investigation at historic Yarlings Hall, but it also tantalisingly whispers a callback, albeit oblique, to the haunting that began it all. It’s also directly referred to in text: “We can’t stop now, not when we’ve reached the Apparition Phase. We have to go on!” shouts lead researcher Graham when the malevolent spirit makes its appearance, despite the (highly sensible) demands of the rest of his crew to quit the premises immediately. As a title, it speaks to multiple layers of the text which – like all the great genre narratives – is about much more than things going bump in the night.
Which very neatly segues into a second tip for coming up with titles.
Find the heart
I have no idea whether The Apparition Phase was named before it was written or if the name appeared after the first draft was complete. I suspect the former, but only because of the way the title came about for my first novel, Edge of Heaven.
Ostensibly, Edge of Heaven is a science fiction thriller about a deadly pandemic and the behind-the-scene political machinations that enable the virus' spread. And that’s definitely what drives the narrative, but that’s not what the title speaks to. The title speaks to its heart. And at its heart, Edge of Heaven is a story about struggling to survive on the knife-edge of a socially unequal, damaged society. About the way that hope feeds resilience. About love and the beautiful things it makes us do. At one point, very early on, the novel features this sequence:
Which certainly makes it sound like this title ought to belong under the previous section, except for one important point: the novel was always called Edge of Heaven. Right back all the way to, oooh, probably the sixth or seventh edit (there were many, many more edits than that before it hit the publishable draft). I added the text to make sense of the title, not the other way around.
I suspect - though I don’t know - that the same was true of The Apparition Phase.
To be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. If your story emerges with title in place, more power to you, and if the title is kind of… wishy-washy in terms of strict relevance to the narrative, absolutely see if you can surreptitiously squeeze that sucker into the text to justify its presence.
However, this is not a blog about that kind of title. And this section is about doing it the other way around.
Little Feet was one of those titles that happened the other way around. When it was called The Doll it was about an object. Objects are easy enough to avoid, though, and – however terrifying those stupid china-faced monstrosities might be – the object in question wasn’t doing enough to evoke the primal fear that drives the narrative. You can see a doll. You can touch a doll. You can put the doll in a different room and close the door, and the doll thereby loses a lot of its power to unnerve. But… the pitter-patter of small feet in a dark, deserted hallway – that’s something altogether less easy to rationalise away. You can’t avoid what you can’t see.
So Little Feet became the title, because it speaks to the heart of the story. Yes, there’s a doll in it. But it’s about the little feet and all the terrible things they represent.
Present a major character
I mean, this is, effectively, what the placeholder titles for Little Feet and A Depth of Years were doing when they were still known as The Doll and The Banshee respectively. That wasn’t their problem, though. Their problem was that the names of those major characters did nothing to intrigue or inspire curiosity. That’s not true in every case.
Think about titles that frame the protagonist or major ancillary character in a way that speaks to the conflict that drives the narrative: The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, or The Kite Runner or The Girl With All The Gifts. They’re hinting at surprising or unexpected details that reference the narrative they encapsulate. We’re not 100% clear on what those monikers represent - which is, again, part of what the narrative will uncover for us – so they’re already doing some of the heavy lifting that will fall upon the opening pages, inasmuch as they’re prompting the kinds of questions that generate reader engagement.
My short story Blumelena takes the same approach. It’s the name of the secondary character, as we find out, but that’s not immediately clear at first glance. What the hell is a blumelena? Read on, the title whispers, and find out…
This also works with settings, by the way, mostly because they often function as major characters in their own right. The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – a truly spectacular blend of scrupulously researched historical fiction and spine-chilling horror – is a fantastic example. While the titular location might not have been quite so intriguing 400 or so years ago, when the story is set, it’s a term that’s fallen out of use since then and so its mobilisation as the novel’s title speaks coherently to the mood and the setting, as well as the exigencies of its dramatic, punishing terrain.
Play off an existing work
This one saved my bacon recently, in fact, when I had a deadline looming, a completed story, and literally nothing where the title was meant to be. One quick Google search later – search term: “literary quotes about scary seas” – and I had a name for my narrative in the nick of time.
There’s a long literary tradition of mining other well-known works of literature for the thematic recognition they bring. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green references Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I Scene II, where Cassius addresses Brutus:
His point is that, in this case, it’s not the fates conspiring to cause catastrophe: it’s the conspirators’ own failure to act. The fault is not in their stars. So, by contrast, Green is able to repurpose the tragic inevitability that we associate with Caesar and link it to the whims of fate in his exploration of doomed teenage love. Destiny has dealt Hazel and Augustus a seriously rotten hand. The fault is in their stars.
Ben Elton’s This Other Eden also riffs off Shakespeare and, honestly, I can’t imagine any other way to name this glorious novel and I’m glad I didn’t have to. It’s a quote from Richard II, and it’s a long one, but you need a decent chunk to get the gist. From Act II Scene I:
This Other Eden is about trying to survive the climate apocalypse by creating our own little individual ecosystems under a purpose-built plastic dome in our backyards. It’s a title dripping with sarcasm, but it’s absolutely perfect for conveying the novel’s tone and message up front.
In any case, there is almost certainly a novel, movie, short story, essay or interview quote out there that will fit your purpose when it comes time to name your newborn narrative.
It’s always worth checking in with the source text if Google comes up with a likely looking possibility that you’re not familiar with: ideally, you’d want the quote to evoke ideas, themes or moods that your story picks up. A super-obscure text can’t really do that, no matter how perfect the quote might seem. And, equally, it’s probably best to avoid lifting phrases from certain more… infamous texts (Mein Kampf springs to mind) or particularly divisive authors, unless the story you’re titling actively seeks to engage with, talk back to or in some way wrestle with issues that link specifically to the text or author in question.
Sometimes those quotes can sneak up on you, is what I’m saying. Google can be a fickle friend. Trust but verify.
The thing is, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors involved in the alchemy of drawing a reader in. Of the various figures I’ve seen bounced around about how long your story has to capture somebody’s attention, the most optimistic suggests an upper limit of 20 seconds. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your opening pages and, though you should absolutely put that pressure on your opening pages as well, the right title can definitely do some of that heavy lifting for you.
Get them reading past the first paragraph, and you’ve got a better chance of getting them to finish the first page. Get them to finish the first page, and you’re looking good for the rest of Chapter 1 at least.
Catch them with the title, though, and you’re levelling up before they’ve read a single word.
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
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