The title may be the first thing the reader sees, but it might be the last thing the writer sees.
Some writers start with a title and write a story from it. I tend to fall into this bucket. So does John Wright, who says he has not only a notebook where he writes down story ideas, but a file where he writes down interesting possibilities for titles. Jack McDevitt likewise confesses, “I have a hard time writing the narrative until I have a title in place” and Geoff Landis typically finds his working title becoming the title of the finished story.
Other writers, however, don’t come up with a title until the story is complete or near enough. For many, the final title is a struggle or, in Michael Swanwick’s case, “a hideous struggle.” His working title for the award-winning Stations of the Tide was… Science Fiction Novel, and it “came perilously close to being published as Sea-Change, being saved from this fate on literally the last day the title could have been changed.” Nancy Kress seldom has even a working title while she writes, and often struggles with the titles afterward. “I have no good titles that I chose myself,” says Nancy Kress, “with a few exceptions. Otherwise, I grab the sleeve of any one I can and say ‘Will you read this and title it for me?’” Geoffrey Landis says, “I usually struggle for a while and then give up and give it something obvious.” Ed Lerner tells us, “I generally go through several titles before one sticks.” For Harry Turtledove, it is “almost always a struggle” with occasional exceptions. His original title for "The Pugnacious Peacemaker" (a sequel to Sprague deCamp's “Wheels of If") was "Making Peace with the Land of War,” which he thinks was perhaps too long and obscure.
On the other hand, Juliette Wade says that while she has struggled once or twice with titles, she usually doesn’t have that much trouble, especially with her Allied Systems stories. For Bill Gleason, titles “don’t come easily, but it hasn't really been a struggle either.” I would have to put myself in this category, too. I often have more titles than stories. Or perhaps more accurately, where some folks have working titles, I have working stories; that is, story ideas, concepts, and such to which I’ve given a title/label and placed on a to-do list. A story entitled “On the Shore of the Endless Ocean” has been lying doggo for some years now in a state of I-sorta-know-what-it-will-be-about-but-not-quite.
Jack McDevitt swings both ways. He has occasionally spent an entire year trying to come up with a title and still ended with one that was unsatisfactory. “The Hercules Text was my first novel,” he says. “The book, I’m happy to say, was considerably better than the title, which made it sound like a school assignment.” But he had other titles, like A Talent for War, before he had even the germ of a plot to go with it.
Whether the result of hideous struggle or happy inspiration, whether captured ahead of time or only after the story has revealed its name, a title sometimes hits that sweet spot. I asked the Committee of Correspondence which titles of their own they were especially pleased with.
Michael Swanwick is partial to two. The first is “Mother Grasshopper,” a story set on a planet-sized grasshopper, because, he says, only the second word is literal. “Mother” is figurative. “It refers to no thing or fact that you can find in the story,” he says, “but it involves the reader in interpreting the story’s meaning and adds to its depths. That title came about in the usual, sweaty, making-lists-and-cursing way.” He also likes “‘Hello,’ Said the Stick” and defies anyone to turn to that page of Analog and not read the first paragraph or two, just to see what the heck is going on.” Definitely an arresting title.
For Geoffrey Landis a favorite title is his recent Nebula-nominated story "Sultan of the Clouds." “It seems appropriate for the story,” he says, “yet somewhat lyrical.”
Juliette Wade thinks "Cold Words" was her most effective title because “it gave good intellectual guidance, captured the core of the story, and also had a lot of emotional content and potential for rousing curiosity.”
Ed Lerner is partial to his "Dangling Conversations," a novelette dealing with SETI. He says it “fits the story (because radio-based comm between stars is going to be slow, with years between question and answer), sounds intriguing (who's talking, and what's been left in abeyance?), and avoids giving away anything critical.” He has no idea how he came up with it. It just popped out of his subconscious.
Bill Gleason lifted "Into That Good Night" from a poem by Dylan Thomas. But he believes it especially fitting because it hints at both the action of the story and one of its major themes.
Harry Turtledove likes In the Presence of Mine Enemies, The Man With the Iron Heart, and "Lee at the Alamo" (upcoming on tor.com) “They fit the stories and seemed tolerably memorable.”
For Jack McDevitt, a favorite is The Engines of God. “It implies the cosmic power which constitutes the threat in the novel, and it also has an epic feel, perfect for the novel that introduced the omega clouds and Priscilla Hutchins. Time Travelers Never Die works well also, depicting the relatively light tone of the novel, and the central point that you always know when to find a time traveler, so she is never really dead.”
Nancy Kress likes "Out of All Them Bright Stars" and "The Price of Oranges" because she chose them herself!
John Wright says his titles are “about average as titles go.” He offers two novels: Null-A Continuum has the unusual term ‘Null-A,’ and since the first book dealt with the world of Null-A, and the second with a galactic war, he upped the ante to ‘Continuum,’ which “has that nice shiny science fictional ring to it. Sounds all technical and stuff.” He also likes Last Guardian of Everness. It has an unusual or invented word, everness, “which conveys a hint of eternity.” And “there is an irony or an oddity in the title, since if the ‘Everness’ (whatever that is) lasts forever, how can there be a last one of them? The word ‘Guardian’ is also mildly archaic, and tells the reader this is a fantasy.” Finally, ‘Last’ conjures that sense of melancholy so common to fantasy. But his all-time favorite is a novella, “One Bright Star to Guide Them.” “That title to me captures an eerie magic hard to describe.”
I asked them, too, which titles by other writers struck them as most effective.
Michael Swanwick thinks Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire” is deceptively simple, inherently interesting, easy to remember, and rouses the reader’s curiosity. “And it fits the story perfectly. You can’t do better than that.”
Geoffrey Landis tells us that Roger Zelazny was good with titles. Creatures of Light and Darkness resonates with him. (The title appealed to me, too, and I bought the book on no other basis than that. Note the contrast between light and darkness and the suggestive ambiguity of creatures. )
Juliette Wade said that it was hard for her to pick a favorite title in others' work, but says “I do always enjoy titles which have unusual grammatical structure, though overall I'd say content is more important. I like titles which are a bit mysterious.” She named my own "Where the Winds are All Asleep" and Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which she found “nicely intriguing.”
Ed Lerner likes A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, both by Vernor Vinge. Both titles are “striking, fit their stories well, and avoid giving away any plot.”
For Harry Turtledove, three satisfactory titles that spring to mind are For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), and Lest Darkness Fall (deCamp).
Jack McDevitt says that two of his favorite titles are Glory Road (Heinlein) and “Out of All Them Bright Stars” (Kress). “I’d buy either book without knowing anything else about them, even their authors.” He’s not sure why. “Other people’s titles just blow me away. Or don’t.”
John Wright likes The Dying Earth (Jack Vance). “These two words are quite ordinary taken separately, and forgettable, whereas together immediately conjure that sense of cosmic deeps of time which is the heart of science fiction, and, at the same time, that haunting sense of melancholy which is the heart of fantasy. It immediately sets the reader to wonder: we have seen creatures die, but the Earth?” Regarding Well at the World’s End (William Morris), he defies anyone to come up with “a title more rich with the echoes of the sounds of the horns of elfland dimly blowing.”
Going out of genre, some titles I’ve especially liked are the thriller As the Wolf Loves Winter, by David Poyer, and the detective novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block. The former suggests something of the bitter cold and the predatory characters in the story; the latter suggests a sea-change in the characters’ lives. I bought both books on little more than the title, and you can’t ask more of a title than that. I have also found Cordwainer Smith (“The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All"), Harlan Ellison (“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”), and R.A. Lafferty (“The Groaning Hinges of the World”) to be producers of astonishing titles. But be careful with astonishing titles if you don’t have an astonishing story to go with it.
Where Do You Get Your Titles From?
Titles crawl out from under a variety of rocks, even when we have to turn the rock over with a stick. Four sources are the four dimensions of a story: setting (or milieu), theme (or idea), characters, and plot (events or “peak situations”).
1. Setting: A book can take its title from the milieu in which it takes place. This can be literal or metaphorical. Examples include: Ringworld (Niven). “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” (Kipling). Eternity Road (Jack McDevitt). Venus (Ben Bova). Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson). “Gibraltar Falls” (Poul Anderson). Or my own Eifelheim. Because SF often involves strange milieus, and readers are attracted to futuristic or alternate settings, this is a popular class of title.
2. Idea: The title can be a word or phrase that captures the essential theme of the story. This is probably the most popular category of titles. The idea may be described directly, as in the mainstream book Room at the Top (John Braine) or by means of a double-meaning, as in The Bookman’s Wake (John Dunning) or a paradox, as in Casualties of Peace (Edna O’Brien). Examples in SF include: Thrice Upon a Time (James Hogan), Mission of Gravity (Hal Clement) or Dark as Day (Charles Sheffield).
3. Character: The name or description of a key character, either directly naming the individual (or group of individuals) or by using a metaphor. Examples include: The Odyssey (Homer), David Copperfield (Dickens), and Lolita (Nabokov). Titles taken from protagonist names are less common in SF, but we have Kinsman (Bova), Starman Jones (Heinlein), and of course Conan the Barbarian (Robert E. Howard). Metaphorically, we have character-driven titles in The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkein), The Revolving Boy (Gertrude Friedberg), and “The Man Who Came Early” (Poul Anderson).
4. Event: A name or phrase that captures some peak situation or occurrence within the story. Typical examples include “The Madness of Private Ortheris” (Kipling), The Fall of the Towers (Samuel R. Delany), and “The Green Hills of Earth” (Heinlein). The last refers to a poem composed by the character Rhysling during the story crisis. Mars Crossing (Landis) and “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (Nancy Kress) are summaries of their respective plots.
Poking the Muse
There are several ways of jogging the creative juices to emit a title from the brain-pan.
1. Simple description. A nanotech story of mine was called “Werehouse” because that was where people went to be illegally transformed into animals. Such titles often take the form
- Noun (The Syndic, C.M. Kornblunth)
- Adjective Noun, (The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett),
- Noun Noun (Dinosaur Beach, Keith Laumer),
- Noun of Noun, ("Flowers of Aulit Prison," Kress)
2. A line from the story. Search the text of your story for a line that seems to encapsulate the story. That was the origin of my in-progress novella, “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go.” It was also how Nancy Kress found titles for "Out of All Them Bright Stars" and "The Price of Oranges," and R.A. Lafferty obtained “Camels and Dromedaries, Clem.”
3. Famous (or not so famous) quotations. Make a list of key words from each of the four categories mentioned above and go to Bartlett’s to see if there’s a quotation that illuminates the story. Shakespeare and the Bible have been overused, though there is a good reason why people fish there for pithy quotes. But why not look for the road less traveled and try Matthew Arnold, Algernon Swinburne or Lewis Thomas? This was how I found “Where the Winds Are All Asleep,” “Great, Sweet Mother,” and “The Common Goal of Nature.” I also mined quotes for “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” and “The Clapping Hands of God.” Harry Turtledove took “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” from Psalms 23:5 – and “The Road Not Taken” from Frost. Bill Gleason, as already mentioned, used Dylan Thomas. Lawrence Block’s Small Town comes from a passage by John Gunther – and refers to New York City, which makes for an arresting contrast.
4. Pairings. BruteThink is a creative thinking tactic. It consists of finding two words that are individually contrasting but which in combination capture the story. From the list of key terms suggested by the four categories, look for pairs that clash. Charles Sheffield’s Dark as Day, for example; or Nancy Kress’ “Flowers of Aulit Prison.” Flowers + Prison? What’s that all about? Another contrast, which Jack McDevitt has mentioned, is to join a physical thing with an abstraction, as in his Infinity Beach, Nancy Kress’ Probability Moon, or Kipling’s “Dayspring Mishandled.”
5. Crossing categories. A good title might suggest itself by pairing key words from different categories. For example, an event and a place, as in Kipling’s “The Taking of Lungtungpen” or Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”; or a character and a place, as in de Camp’s Conan of Cimmeria. Try each pairing and see what comes up: “The Character of Setting,” “Of Idea and Character,” and so on.
6. Random matches. Mozart used to roll a trio of dice to suggest chord progressions. He would take the randomly-generated chords and see if they inspired his creative juices. If not, he would keep rolling until something came up. The writer can do the same thing, taking words from the list of key words purely at random and rubbing them against one another to see if any of them strike sparks.
Since I know my own titles best, I can offer a few comments on several stories in various stages of (in)completion:
- “Places Where the Roads Don’t Go” An idea-title. The story began with a different title, but partway through one of the characters said, “but there are places where the roads don’t go.” Because it encapsulated the entire theme of the story and the relationship between the two main characters, it was forthwith promoted to title.
- “Buried Hopes” This follows Jack McDevitt’s dictum of pairing something physical (Buried) with something abstract (Hope). It was the original working title for the first item, above. Never waste a title, sez I! Now it is part of a story cycle that also includes “Remember’d Kisses” and “Captive Dreams,” so it employs parallel Adjective Noun structure. It also has a second meaning that becomes clear near the end.
- “Hopeful Monsters” This was a title that existed before there was a story plot to go with it, only a theme or idea. The reference is to Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monster theory” that evolutionary change may involve, not incremental Darwinian steps, but big leaps (mutants, ‘monsters’ in the technical sense) that have great possibilities (hence, ‘hopeful’). The story applies that idea to genetic engineering intended to optimize human beings. There is a nice contrast between the two words and a double meaning lurking in the story.
- “Elmira, 1895” This is a place title; and involves a fictional visit by Rudyard Kipling, then living in Vermont, to Samuel Clemens in Elmira, regarding a manuscript that Clemens has written and some newspaper stories that Kipling had clipped. A title like this suggests a tight focus on a single event at a particular time and place.
- “Mayerling” Another place-title for an alternate history centered on Crown Prince Rudolf and his hunting lodge at Mayerling, near or around which numerous other characters – Strauss Jr., Freud, Klimt, et al. – have also lived, hiked or picnicked.
- The Chieftain is a character-title referring to David O’Flainn, chief of the Sil Maelruain ca. 1224, in a medieval fantasy. Since the basic plot is already in the Annala Connaughta and a practice version of the whole thing, written in college, sits in a box beside me, there is actually some hope of whapping it into shape. The title is appropriate because the character of the clan chieftain is the focus of the story.
- The Shipwrecks of Time is from a quotation by Francis Bacon about the haphazard nature of surviving antiquities. I saw it in a chapter quote in one of Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels and I began thinking about a story in which bits and pieces of haphazardly surviving data gradually comes together to... Well, there are all sorts of shipwrecks, aren't there?
Stories or novels in a series present an additional challenge. They are often expected to carry some sort of commonality. Each of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books has a color in the title; as does Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian trilogy. The Cliff Janeway novels of John Dunning all have “booked” or “bookman” in the title. My own Firestar series had the word “star” in each of the titles. Nancy Kress did the same with her Sleepless books and her Probability series. Ed Lerner and Larry Niven included the phrase "...of Worlds" in each book of their Fleet of Worlds series.
But this is by no means a requirement. Neither Jack McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins novels nor his Alex Benedict novels have “marker” titles. Neither do my own Spiral Arm books. Lawrence Block uses a title pattern for his Burglar books (“The Burglar Who….”) but not for his Matthew Scudder books. However, a title pattern is a choice that you might keep in mind if you have a series.
- While the title is not the only gateway into a book or story, it is still important to stir the reader’s interest with a good title. Novels are often helped by the cover art, but magazine stories are not.
- A good title should be i) arresting, ii) suggestive, and iii) challenging.
- “Arresting” means the use of words or phrases that catch the attention: sometimes neologisms or “SF” words, the use of “strange pairs” like contradictory terms or physical+abstract, or by using unusual grammar.
- “Suggestive” means a title that tells the reader something about the story without revealing too much about it. It ought to hint at whether the story will be SF, fantasy, or something else, tell us if the story will be serious or comic, intended for mature or YA readership, etc. A great title for one could be terrible for another.
- “Challenging” means that the title may have hidden meanings or a significance that does not become clear until after the story has been read. Quotations or allusions, double meanings, and the like are useful for this purpose.
- Titles can be short or long, straightforward or elaborate.
- They can be found in a variety of ways:
- i) from the four dimensions of a story – setting, theme, character, and/or plot events;
- ii) from quotations within the story itself;
- iii) from apposite external quotations.
- Lists of key words expressing setting, theme, character, and/or plot events can be “mixed and matched” in a variety of ways to suggest possible titles.
Old wine in new bottles. Pick a book or story you liked, and suggest an alternate title for it. John Wright says he “would have changed I Will Fear No Evil into "Brain-Swapping Lust Ghost of Venus or something.” And Foundation he would have called, Mind-Masters of the Dying Galactic Empire. What titles can you come up with? You can
a) suggest serious alternatives to titles you thought didn’t quite make it, or
b) try to out-gonzo Mr. John C. Wright.
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The prize… Well, there ain’t no prize. We don’t need no stinking prizes. It’s an honor just to participate.