Five Authors/Five Questions: Titles

My conversation with writers continues. Today, we look at titles and how one approaches them. Participating writers include: Luc ReidKrista Hoeppner Leahy, Don Mead,  Justin Howe, and Vylar Kaftan.


How do you go about choosing a title for the story? Do titles present themselves before the work begins, or when it’s complete?


LR: Titles for me come before, during, or after writing the story. I have strong opinions about what titles should do: I have a whole rant about them . While they do serve as postscripts and labels for stories, my feeling is that their biggest job is to convey why someone might like the story so that they can attract the readers who would be most interested. This means my story titles often come out on the long side, though.

When a title doesn’t jump out at me automatically, I tend to go through the story looking for something that broadcasts what’s interesting about the story to me, like “My Girlfriend the Mentalist,” “On the Talking Horse Circuit,” or “Bottomless” (which is admittedly a title that’s vulnerable to off-color jokes). It’s not difficult to guess that these are stories about a mind-reading girlfriend, a performing talking horse, and a bottomless pit, respectively. With any luck, those titles will tend to interest the kinds of readers who like stories with those kinds of premises.

KHL: Finding titles is tricky. I’m a sucker for a good title, but choosing my own can be a bit of a challenge. Almost always, the title is the finishing touch, only apparent after the story is complete. The marvelous poet Matthea Harvey has come up with a series of categories for titles (in reference to poems). My favorite category illuminates just how powerful a good title can be. She calls those titles “helium balloons,” where the titles lift the work into whole new stratospheres of meaning and resonance.

DM: I’ve given up trying to think of titles before hand or during the writing process. It’s only when the piece is finished that the title emerges.

JH: Either before or during. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story and afterwards sat around wondering what to call it. Normally the hard part will be trying to decide between a few contenders. I do have a list of titles in need of stories, and whenever I start a new story, I get a bit excited wondering if, yes, now, finally I will get to use that awesome title I’ve been saving.

On a side note my friend, Jay Ridler, came up with this challenge where we made a list of titles and gave them to each other and some friends. We named the challenge after horror producer Val Lewton who was given a similar list by his studio executives. (It’s because of this that I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is such a great movie.) Jay wrote about the experience over on his blog.

VK: Titles are like little advertisements for the story. A good title makes the reader say, “What could that be?  Wow, I want to read it.”  Strong titles have motion, just like a story. They may have a verb to give them some action, or pair two words that don’t belong together and cause friction between them. Single-word titles rarely work unless they are a very interesting word. (Of course, like any writing guideline, there are a zillion exceptions. But my point remains.)  The other point about titles is that it’s impossible to get a perfect title for every story. About 50% of the time, I can find a great title with some thought. 25% of the time, I find a decent one. And the other 25% of the time, I just give it the best one I can think of and then stop worrying about it.


How do you title your stories? Leave us a comment to let us know. When we next meet, we’ll talk about the dreaded middle slump of a story!

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