What makes a good title? What makes a bad one?
And how do you know when you’ve found the right one?
These questions come up occasionally in the creative writing classes I teach, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have any easy answers. The honest truth is I struggle with titles myself. On the one hand, they seem like the least important part of the writing process: Shouldn’t the story or novel speak for itself? On the other, they’re the first words anyone reads, and in some respect the most important words of all—what we sniff before ordering the bottle. I can’t tell you how many times students have thanked me for assigning a short story they wouldn’t have read on their own because they hated the title. “Sea Oak,” by George Saunders, seems to fall into this camp: a fine title, if you’ve read the story, but which in the uninitiated stirs up visions of 17th century frigates.
I once desperately wanted to call a story “Frozen Dog.” I had only the vaguest idea of the plot, based on an anecdote a friend had told me about someone who kept their dead spaniel in the freezer, but I thought the title would catapult me (and the story) to greatness. How could you see a title like that and not put down everything you were doing—ordering a latte, scoring some drugs, operating an air traffic control tower—to read it? Months later, the finished story was accepted by a respected literary magazine, but they demanded I change the title. Since a frozen dog was a central image in the story, both literally and figuratively, they felt it was heavy-handed. I was incensed. The raison d’etre of the story!
They were right, of course, and I eventually came up with another title. The point is, though, when it comes to the writing process, sometimes a bad title can help you more than a good one. In their book Deepening Fiction, Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren talk about the idea of creative beginnings versus actual beginnings: Even if we end up cutting the original “creative beginning” of a novel or short story—the part of the novel or story, often, that we’re most attached to—this doesn’t mean it’s not an essential part of the writing process. In some ways, it’s the most essential. The same goes for titles, I think. I’ve heard students tell me they come up with their titles first, before they have the slightest notion of a plot. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as they’re willing to give up their “creative title” when it no longer serves the story.
Still, the fact remains that there are many more bad titles than good ones. I’ve seen some jaw-droppingly awful titles, often from very gifted writers. And I’m not just talking about my students: The Great Gatsby is an inspired title, one for the ages, but it wasn’t Fitzgerald’s idea. He wanted to call the novel Trimalchio in West Egg, which sounds like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up for The Playboy Channel. An early version of Portnoy’s Complaint was called A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis. At various times, Catch-22 was called Catch-18, Catch-11, Catch-14, and Catch-17. And some classic novels have stood the test of time, despite having terrible titles. (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for example, never fails to make me giggle.)
In short, there seems to be very little correlation between producing something brilliant and the ability to come up with a half-decent name for it. Perhaps it’s a different skill set entirely. I sometimes think there should be professional titlers: Just as we wouldn’t ask a carpenter to tar the roof of our house, we shouldn’t expect writers to work outside their métier. But even if the perfect title is destined to elude us, I do think it’s possible to identify a bad one—even, I think, to lay out some basic ground rules for what to steer clear of.
So, based on years of teaching, I’ve compiled the following list of Titles to Avoid. (Note: Some of the examples below are real titles, from good stories.)
The Faux Poetic but Authentically Meaningless (“Hunt the Mist Slowly”)
The Purely Descriptive (“One Early Morning in Topeka at Dawn”)
The Lofty Abstraction, a.k.a. the Bad Kundera (“The Lonely Shackles of Mortality”)
The Hardy Boys Special (“The Hike from Hell”)
The Grammatically Complete Sentence (“Gladys Pemberton Strikes It Rich”)
The Inspirational Cliché (“Dreams of Rebirth”)
The Uninspirational Cliché (“Losing My Marbles”)
The Alliterative Tongue Twister (“Peripatetic Papa”)
The Allusion to Another, Much More Famous Work of Literature (“The Story of Christ”)
The It-Doesn’t-Get-Any-Cuter-Than-This (“Runaway Grandma”)
The Melodramatic Image (“Blood Dries Brown”)
The My-Life-Changed-Unexpectedly-and-I’m-Going-to-Tell-You-About-It (“Epiphany in a Tattoo Parlor”)
The Bad McSweeney (“How We Lie to the Moon, and How the Moon Lies to Us”)
The Scratch ‘n Sniff, a.k.a. But-It-Will-Make-Such-a-Lovely-Cover-Someday (“In the Valley of the Gardenia Blossoms”)
And a good title? Much harder to quantify, but I have some theories: It doesn’t make a spectacle of itself. It doesn’t try too hard, but is original nonetheless. It makes sense on a literal level but deepens metaphorically as we read—deepens, in the finest cases, our understanding of the story or novel itself. The Remains of the Day, “Good Country People,” Disgrace, “Friend of My Youth.”
A tall order, I know, and I don’t claim to be any better at titles than my students. My novel, for instance, about a downwardly mobile family in Southern California, went through various identities: It was The Cost of Living for a while, and enjoyed a brief stint as This World Is Not Your Home (yes, I know, rule #5). It was a friend who finally suggested its current title, Model Home. It’s not flashy—I would even say it’s humble, the shy title at the dance —but in ways both literal and figurative, it’s perfect.
And yet I didn’t take to it at first. I had a different title in mind, one that seemed to make people either burst out laughing or (worse) gasp over its poetic splendor. The title I had in mind makes no sense whatsoever if you haven’t read the book. It’s trying too hard and probably a bit pretentious. But I’m still attached to it. I’m not quite ready to march it over to the title graveyard, to join the Trimalchios and their Dreams of Rebirth. So I gave it to this essay instead.
Also by Eric Puchner: I Married a Novelist.