Thursday, July 7, 2011

Entitlement, Part I

Titles.  What we know first about anything is its being, its existence; and so we give it a name so we can talk about it.  What we know first about any story or novel is its title.  Before the reader knows the names of the characters, he knows the name of their story.  In fact, the latter may be a precondition to the former, since a bad title can drive readers off.  Well-known writers may get by with so-so titles.  Their books will sell regardless.  And some readers will buy anything in their favorite genre, and again the title will not be the deciding factor.  But for the most part, a book will sit among other books, each clamoring for attention.  The browsing reader, who is neither fan nor fanatic, will pick up one and not the other. 

Why?  The title, the cover, and the opening passages.  Now short stories seldom have covers, and even for novels the cover is usually not controlled by the writer.  So let’s consider titles, as such.  We will consider the opening in a later post at some uncertain date. 

Thanks and Acknowledgments.  I was assisted in this essay by helpful inputs from the Committee of Correspondence.  They include old hands and neo-pros, hard SF and fantasy, novelists and short fiction writers. However, they are not to blame for what I did with their comments.
  • Jack McDevitt, Nebula-winning author of the popular Alex Benedict and Priscilla Hutchens novels
  • Bill Gleason, a neo-pro with several short stories in ANALOG
  • Nancy Kress, multiple Hugo and Nebula winning author and one-time fiction columnist for Writer's Digest
  • Geoff Landis, author of Crossing Mars and winner of both Hugo and Nebula awards for short fiction.
  • Ed Lerner, author of multiple novels including the Fleet of Worlds series with Larry Niven
  • Michael Swanwick, author of the Nebula-winning Stations of the Tide and numerous fine short fiction
  • Harry Turtledove, regarded as the master of alternate history, has won the Hugo and Nebula for his short fiction
  • Juliette Wade, a neo-pro with several noted short stories hinging on linguistics and culture.
  • John C. Wright, author of the Golden Age series and Chronicles of Chaos and the forthcoming Count to a Trillion

What are the Qualities of a Good Title?
In his book Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer, John Gallishaw addresses the title in his chapter "How to Make a Story Interesting." 
Now the ultimate Beginning of any story, that part which comes at once to the reader's attention, is the title.  From the point of view of interest, a good title is, then, your first consideration in arousing the reader's interest.  The title should be arresting, suggestive, challenging.  Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy" has all these requirements.  So has Barrie's "What Every Woman Knows."  So has Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw."  So has O. Henry's "The Badge of Policeman O'Roon."  So has John Marquand's "A Thousand in the Bank." ..... You may say definitely that the first device for capturing interest is in the selection of a title which will cause the reader to pause, which will whet his curiosity.

1. Arresting.  What causes the reader to pause is an arresting title.  The reader wonders what the heck is this about?  Especially arresting titles include When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes (Lawrence Block); “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (Samuel Delaney), “Out of All Them Bright Stars” (Nancy Kress), or even my own “Timothy Leary, Batu Khan, and the Palimpsest of Universal Reality.”  Harry Turtledove recently submitted a story titled "It's the End of the World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine."
Of course, arresting titles need not be elaborate (although a review of Hugo and Nebula nominees reveals something of a fashion for this in SF).  The Maltese Falcon is short, descriptive, and carries a hint of the exotic.  Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer and Greg Bear’s The Forge of God are effective for the same reason.  John C. Wright would like a title to be “brief, striking or memorable to the reader, and to tell the reader immediately what genre the book is.  If the title includes an odd or invented word, or a combination of words not normally found together, this is better still.”

A good way to arrest the attention is to evoke imagery.  “I want graphics,” writes Jack McDevitt.  “I want a visual, connected with an emotional impact, or at least an insight into where the narrative is going.”  He suggests joining a physical object with an abstraction.  For example, his own Eternity Road (which is one of my own favorites) joins the physical Road with the abstraction of Eternity and “takes on the changes brought about by the passage of time.” 

Because genre readers like to read genre, John Wright suggests the title include words like star or world or otherwise suggest SF and offers The Star Fox (Poul Anderson), Rocannon’s World (Ursula K. LeGuin), Forbidden Planet (“W.J. Stuart” (Philip MacDonald)) and World of Null-A (A.E. VanVogt) as examples.  The last-named contains the mysterious, and therefore arresting neologism null-A.  He also cites the hard-to-find Harry Potter and the Sky-Pirates of Callisto vs. the Second Foundation

Keep in mind that titles must be reader-appropriate.  A young boy may be intrigued by Space Captives of the Golden Men (Mary E. Patchett) – I was.  It was the first SF book I read. – but more mature readers often prefer titles with greater subtlety. 

2. Suggestive.  Now, if arresting the reader’s attention were the only quality for a title, every story would be entitled "Secret Sex Lives of Famous People” or perhaps Golden Bimbos of the Death Sun.  Indeed, William Sanders once quipped about a certain publisher that he was the sort who would change the title of the Bible to War Gods of the Desert.  Michael Swanwick writes that the title “should suggest that something really interesting is happening in the story.” 

The simplest way to do this is with a title that captures the essence of the story. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky is not only arresting (a tunnel in the sky?) but suggests what the story will be about.   William Trevor’s mainstream story “The General’s Day” chronicles the banal events of one day in the life of a retired British general (with a devastating ending). 
However, “suggestive” does not mean flat description.  Suggestive means to hint, to adumbrate something about the story. 
i)    Not too revealing.  Ed Lerner cautions that the title should avoid giving away anything critical in the story.  Geoff Landis concurs: “Something evocative and also fitting for the story, but doesn't give away key points of the story.”  The art of story-telling is to present events to the reader in an order that produces the best artistic effect.  So Odysseus Comes Home Late would be a bad title, even though it is correctly descriptive. 

ii)    Metaphoric or symbolic.  Edmund Hamilton's The Haunted Stars concerns the discovery of an abandoned alien base on the Moon, and the imagery of vanished peoples and long-ago deeds pervades the book.  John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider concerns a protagonist who “surfs the wave” of Future Shock.  Juliette Wade tells us that her titles grow out of thematic ideas or important recurring concepts in the story, like the title of her novel, For Love, For Power.  Nancy Kress also admires titles that work on both a plot and a thematic level, like LeGuin's "Nine Lives."  Sara Umm Zaid entitled her 2001 Andalusia Prize story “Making Maklooba.”  Maklooba is a Palestinian dish in which the bowl is turned upside down on the tray and removed.  If the maklooba is good, the food retains the shape of the bowl.  The dish is used as a metaphor for a woman whose life has been turned upside down and emptied by the death of her son and its subsequent political exploitation.  John Dunning used the title Two O’Clock, Eastern Wartime for a tale of murder set in the days of live radio and World War II.  Kipling’s “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” is likewise suggestive while also being descriptive – it is the name of an opium den where the main story takes place. 

iii)    Atmosphere.  The title might also be suggestive by conjuring an atmosphere.  For science fiction, that might be a title that conveys a sense of “cosmic deeps of time.”  For fantasy, one that conveys a “haunting sense of melancholy.”  In fact, Roger MacBride Allen wrote The Depths of Time, which surely conveys that sense of cosmic deeps of time!  The sequel The Ocean of Years succeeds by pairing ocean with years.  Edmond Hamilton’s City at World’s End does a little of both, hinting at depths of time and a sense of melancholy. 

3. Challenging.  You can also catch the reader’s attention with a title that challenges him.  An odd word might be used – Null-A, Dirac Sea, Feigenbaum Number, and so on.  Ed Lerner suggests that the relevance of the title might become evident only after the reader has finished the story and reflects on it. 

Juliette Wade likes titles that can have more than one meaning, such as her own “Cold Words,” which is both literal and metaphorical.  John Dunning’s detective title The Bookman’s Wake seems to mean one thing during the course of the story, but takes on another meaning at the end.  Patrick O’Brian’s naval novel The Surgeon’s Mate also carries two meanings.  Sara Umm Zaid’s “Village of Stones” refers not only to the material construction of the dwellings, but to the enthusiasm with which the villagers stone a young girl who has dishonored her family.  We might call these double-take titles

But be careful.  A title may be so challenging that the prospective reader scratches his head in bewilderment and goes on to another book or story.  Long, obscure titles could tip over into a perceived pretentiousness.  Apparent metaphors could fail to deliver.  James Blish’s The Warriors of Day had a nice title, but it turned out to be prosaic: actual warriors from a planet called Day.  Double meanings could be unintentional.  “The Iron Shirts,” my alternate history story for, was originally titled “Iron Shirts” until it was pointed out that “iron” might be read as a verb! 

It’s Got a Good Beat.  A fourth factor that relates to the form rather than the matter of the title is its rhythm or meter.  Critic and author Greg Feeley once said of my own title The Wreck of “The River of Stars” that what was arresting about it was how the regular beat of the phrase contrasted with the chaos and irregularity implicit in the words wreck, river, and stars.  G.K.Chesterton was fond of alliteration in many of his Father Brown mysteries: “The Doom of the Darnaways,” “The Flying Fish,” and so forth.  Try saying aloud such titles as “The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde” (Norman Spinrad), “The Sorrow of Odin the Goth” (Poul Anderson), The Stone That Never Came Down (John Brunner), To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Philip José Farmer).  Each has a rhythm that makes it attractive.  But a short, punchy title can have its own charms: Warlord of Mars (Burroughs), Jumper (Steven Gould), Star Gate (Andre Norton). 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A good title may mask a bad story.  I’ve mentioned The Warriors of Day.  Similarly, a good story may have a poor title – and thrive regardless.  Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (H. Beam Piper) is a worse title than the original novelette “Gunpowder God.”  Even the blockbuster Dune, which John Wright says “conjures up an image of a small hillock of sand at the beach,” had better titles in magazine serial form; viz., “Dune World” and “The Prophet of Dune.”  However, each of these tales already had followings in the magazines, and the authors themselves were popular. 

Part I has looked at what the title is – its matter and form, if you will.  Part II will look at how a title comes about – its efficient cause. 

Our favorite titles.  Okay, dear readers, if there are any.  Your assignment is to share book or story titles that you found effective, memorable, or resonant, regardless of the quality of the story itself.  That is, titles that lured you to buy the book or read the story, or which have stuck with you afterward.  What about the title enticed you?  What made it work.  You don’t have to restrict yourself to SF titles, either. 

Note to the Anonymoi.  If you are one of the Anonymoi, that is, not registered on either Blogspot or the alternate LiveJournal site, make up a name – even your own – to sign your contributions, lest we confuse one Anonymous with another.


  1. This is something I need to work on. Thanks for posting.

  2. "Note to the Anonymoi."

    *grin* I see I'm not the only one who pluralizes it so. I also use "Anonymice", when warrented, as the plural of "Anonymouse" (an 'anonymouse' is an annoying or pointless anonymous poster).

  3. Titles I like:
    Mainstream - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, very evocative
    Non-fiction: Predictably Irrational, Being Wrong, both juxtaposing or surprising

  4. "Bloodletters and Badmen" - an encylopedia of famous criminals throughout American history, the title even sounds like a showdown.

    "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" - like Tim I like it because it's evocative, but it also feels like it steals the book and makes it Lisbeth's. By comparison, "Men Who Hate Women" may be what the book is about, but, in English at least, it also suggests it's very much a man's book.

    "The Raging Tide: Or, the Black Doll's Imbroglio" - sounds serious, is very much not.

  5. I sometimes go to the library and pick a book at random based on its title/cover/first few paragraphs. One such 'find' was Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys. The copy I read was hardcover, the acknowledgements were printed on the edge of the cover and the title was depicted with images and words.

    It was a short title, I tend to like those and I couldn't quite imagine what a book with that title could be about. I won't give it away the plot in case any of you should choose to read it. I will only say that sometimes explaining the title doesn't always happen in plain text but through feeling and theme of the book, it divides explain and understanding. The Cheese Monkeys became one of my favorite books.


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