- Curiosity. What is going on here? Capture the interest.
- Suspense. What will happen next? Sustain the interest.
- Satisfaction. So that’s what it all meant. Resolve the interest.
- A Title that is arresting, suggestive, and challenging.
- A Story Situation. Some feat to be accomplished or some course of conduct to be chosen.
- The Explanatory Matter. The conditions precipitating the Story Situation, including:
- Importance of the Story Situation, intrinsically or synthetically
- Something unusual in the Story Situation or in the character of the Chief Actor
- Originality of conception or interpretation so that the apparently usual is made unusual.
- A contrast or juxtaposition of opposites.
- The foreshadowing of difficulty, conflict, or disaster to carry interest over into the Body of the Story.
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.
What are the Qualities of a Good Title?
A title, says Gallishaw, should be Arresting, Suggestive, and Challenging.
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 favorite titles) 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 SF titles 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.
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. 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” need not mean mere description. Suggestive means to hint, to adumbrate something about the story.
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 interest 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 tor.com, was originally titled simply “Iron Shirts” until it was pointed out that “iron” might be read as a verb!
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), Riders of the Purple Wage (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. Similarly, a good story may have a so-so title. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (H. Beam Piper) is a worse title than the one the original novelette bore: “Gunpowder God.” Even the blockbuster Dune, whose title 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.”
The First Shall be Last
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 L. Sprague deCamp's “Wheels of If") was "Making
Peace with the Land of War,” which he thinks was perhaps too long and
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.”
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.
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: theme, setting, characters, and plot.
1. Theme: The title can be a word or phrase that captures the essential idea 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).
2. 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.
4. Plot: 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 “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.”
4. Pairings. BruteThink is a creative thinking tactic that 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.
A Note on Series
Stories or novels in a series present an additional challenge. 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 such “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.
Now that you have a title, get on with it! And don't be concerned if you wind up changing the title.
Our favorite titles. Okay, dear readers, assuming 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.
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. Wright.
The prize… Well, there ain’t no prize. We don’t need no stinking prizes. It’s an honor just to participate.Coming Soon: Another Fine Mess