Writing - The Title Of Your Story
( Originally Published 1922 )
When to Choose the Title.—With regard to whether the title should be chosen before or after the story has been written, no absolute rule can be fixed. Some writers find they can decide with greater facility upon the best title for a script after all the constituents of the plot have been grounded firmly in their minds. The theme then shines out with greater meaning—luminous, apparent, exact. Or, again, the very uniqueness of the situation forming the main interest of the story may be so unmistakable in the concrete terms which explain it, that the proper title will come readily and unbidden to the pen. Still again, the title may sum up in a well-considered phrase the thematic importance and pith of the plot, though at the same time the cleverness of word arrangement and the significance of the words selected should portend a far different treatment of the theme than was before attempted.
Titles Themselves May Suggest Stories.—There even are people, places, phrases, and ideas that, in themselves, suggest excellent titles, hence it may be said that the title itself may often prove the foundation of a story. Consider what a multitude of suggestions tumble forth at the mention of the title, "The Man Without a Country," or "The House of Offense." Give either one of these titles to any number of persons who never had seen the stories to which they pertain, and it would not be exaggeration to say that not a single one would interpret the title exactly the same as any other.
Stories Often Judged by Their Titles.—There are several reasons why great caution should be exercised in the choice of the title. Chief among them is the influence, good or bad, the title is bound to have upon the editors. Even though the reader never looked at the title of the story he intended reading, if only to impress the editor it would be well worth the beginner's time to labor assiduously until he had found the exact title to fit his particular production. Editors and editorial readers are human just as the rest of us. If a manuscript comes before their attention bearing a title that brings up no definite mental picture in the mind, then they are very apt to cast the story in the pile with the rest of the rejected. The editor argues in this manner: Surely, if the writer has not enough perspicacity to devise a new, catchy title, nine chances out of ten the plot is just as uninteresting as the title. And such is the truth of affairs. Set before an editor a manuscript that possesses a heading guaranteed to make him gasp for breath by reason of its novelty and appropriateness—and the manuscript is half sold ! The editor's interest has been aroused, his favor has been gained, he is predisposed toward the story.
What the Title Should Be.—The good title possesses several essential requisites. It should be short, apt, original, specific, compelling. The long title usually tells too much and is too cumbersome. The title should be terse, meaty, epigrammatic, easily remembered. Perhaps the greatest requirement of the title, though, is that it be original. Take the average person who is an extensive reader of the popular magazines. What is the story he usually decides to read? Let the be-ginner consider his own experience as a reader. Has it not been his custom to run a finger down the table of contents and choose that story which, by its title, holds promise of having the quickest action, the most original and unique situation? Most assuredly. After all, the title is merely a device to tickle our curiosity. We all are seekers after novelty, excitement, sensation, or the intensely emotional; consequently, if any title cleverly intimates that the story for which it serves as ambassador has plenty of these heart-gripping elements in its unfolding, we are very apt to read it.
The Specific Title.—In addition to originality the correct title should be specific, as opposed to general. The reader wishes to have some hint concerning the character of the story before he reads it, for few people plunge blindly through the contents of a magazine. Surely no one could obtain such intimation from a title so general as "His Reformation." Such a title conveys only one definite idea: that some-where, somehow, in the course of the story someone is re-formed. The ordinary individual is not greatly desirous of reading about reformation in general. Reformations are of a thousand different hues and possibilities; they might take place in any corner of the globe and be enacted under an unlimited diversity of conditions. Such a title, then, is as general as life itself. The story with "His Reformation" as the title might contain the element of love ; in that case the title "Love" would apply just as well as the other. In-deed, it might apply better, for the reformation could be brought about by a man's love for a good woman. In that event it would be the part of the author to express in a single short phrase the main pecularity of just how the woman helped or inspired the man to reform. The writer is then approaching the center of the story's difference and claim to originality, the point wherein lies the story's distinguishable freshness.
Avoid Names as Titles.—The method of taking the title from the name of the chief character has long since gone out of style. So many novels, but especially those of the past century, were studies of the gradual unfolding of character that the title could, with some show of reasonableness, be the name of the main character. In retrospect the title was specific because the character whose name it was held the main center of interest throughout the novel. The reader had obtained a unified impression of one main character, predominant above all others; so the title seemingly was applicable. It lacked, however, any power of capturing the prospective reader's interest, and, in these days, when so many thousands of short stories are being published, there naturally must exist among authors quite strenuous effort to outdo all others in the freshness of their titles. Consequently, while they were prevalent in the past, the writer of short stories will do well to avoid such uninteresting titles as: "Marjorie Daw," "Romola," "Tom Jones," "Ligeia," "Schlemihl," "Amos Barton," and so on.
The Adjective-Name Title.—Akin to the title giving the name of the chief personage is the title in which the hero's or heroine's name is coupled with some descriptive term, intimating the exact situation in which the hero be-comes involved—some peculiarity which singles him out for especial attention, the place where the main events of the plot occur, and so on. Examples of the adjective-name title are, "Black Silas" and "Patient Griselda." Of the titles having the chief character's name coupled with the main situation of the story 'are: "Peter Rugg, The Missing Man," "The Shyness of Shorty," "The Americanization of Roll-Down Joe," "The Madness of Philip" and "The Ordination of John Fairmeadow."
Titles Based on Locations.—In many stories, chiefly those of setting, the. titles are chosen from certain places, or their peculiarities, in which the action occurs. Of such, are: "The House on the Beach," "The Mystery of Witchface Mountain," "The House of a Thousand Candles," "Up the Coolly," and "The Great Stone Face."
Titles That Name an Object.—Especially effective are those titles that are the names of concrete objects contained in the stories, objects that take an all-important part in the working out of the complication. The more common this concrete object is, the more familiar people are with its nature, the more likely are they to remember the story it heads, for the reason that the story and the concrete object, imaged firmly on the mind, remain irrevocably associated. Examples of such titles are: "The Monkey's Paw," "The Mask," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Piece of String," "The Black Cat," "The Turquoise Cup," "An Extra Blanket," and "The Black Pearl."
Titles Based on Themes.—Lastly in this category of titles come those based upon an idea preferably the theme of the story. Examples of such are: "Where Love Is, There God Is Also," "The Lost Word," "The Other Wise Man," "The Man Without a Country," "The Call of the Wild," and "The Law of His Nature."
The Enigmatical Title.—We will treat here very briefly the enigmatical title—the title which is so very puzzling, yet withal so very inviting—which seems contradictory of its very self, as "The Living Dead Man," yet suggesting a very engaging story. The enigmatical title is excellent in the hands of the expert; but, if the amateur dallies with it, his titles are more likely to be meaningless. This sort of title must be written with several aims in view: it must conceal effectively the story's main peculiarity, it must be very interesting, and must meet all the other requirements of the title with regard to length, etc. Examples of such titles are : "They," "The Man Who Was," "The Suicide Club," "Pigs Is Pigs," and "After He Was Dead."
Title's Relation to the Story's Tone.—He will be a wise author, too, who proportions his title to the kind and amount of interest in his story. Consider how disappointed and outraged a reader would be if drawn to read a quiet little character sketch, or a story of setting, by reason of a very inviting, almost sensational, title, which would have been an excellent caption for a blood and thunder tale but very much out of place as title for a character story. The writer's title, then, should arouse no more pleasurable anticipation than the author comfortably can satisfy through the telling of his story.
As an exercise in choosing interesting and appropriate titles, the reader should reflect on the aptness of the title after he has read a story. Let him study the theme, then ask himself what he would have named the story. In writing his stories, too, the beginner should choose not one title merely, but many of them; then he may choose the best.