Do you have trouble coming up with titles for your stories? God knows, I do. But trust me, some people have it even worse.
Back when I was editing White Knuckles magazine, I would constantly get stories with titles like “The Mirror,” “The Key,” “The Cursed Refrigerator,” or “The Killer Monster,” where the story would be about a mirror, a key, a cursed refrigerator or (shock!) a killer monster.
One of the key elements of fiction — especially genre fiction — is surprise. If you have some element of surprise in your story, you can ruin it by giving something — anything — away in your title. Yes, your story might be about a cursed refrigerator, but why tell the reader that before even the first line? That would be like Robert Bloch calling “Psycho” “The Transvestite Multiple-Personality Killer of the Bates Motel.”
If you give away too much of your story in the title, the reader will probably figure out your plot, your surprise, and your ending — maybe without ever even reading the story. As an editor, I know that I used to do that all the time. Not surprising your reader is problem enough; making them think they don’t have to read your story is worse; making an editor not want to read it at all is a cardinal sin.
So how do you title a story?
Well, let’s take a look at that cursed refrigerator story for a few examples.
One easy way to title a story is to lift a good phrase from the tale itself. Maybe at some point in the story, you mentioned “The Whisper of Frozen Peas” or “The Failure of the Baking Soda” or maybe even how when the movers put the fridge in place, it created “Scratched Tiles.” Anything in the story can conceivably make a good title, because until the reader sees those words again in context, they probably won’t mean anything, but they will sound good. Then, when those words show up again in the story itself, their meaning will suddenly become clear, and therefore more memorable.
Another way to find a title is to condense the story’s plot to a simple theme. Our cursed refrigerator story could easily be titled “Frost Bite” or “I’m Mr. Cold Miser,” or quite simply, “Ice.”
Maybe those themes could also give you a chance to create a play on words, using puns, double-meanings, synonyms, and other tricks. “Chill Out” or “Urban Tundra” could work as titles for this story.
Finally, one trick always worth considering is the old misdirection. That’s right, the Red Herring, the staple of mystery fiction and the basis of all stage magic. Point the reader subtly towards something that doesn’t hold the answers to your plot, and you’ll often be able to keep them from seeing where you are really going. “Burned” refers to freezer burns, but could just as easily be interpreted as fire.
In all cases, your goal is to create a short, punchy, memorable, meaningful title. That’s also your goals for your fiction, so why not apply it to your titles as well?
About the Author
John R. Platt is the award-winning author of more than 50 short stories, 2,000 articles and hundreds of marketing campaigns. Visit him online at http://www.john-platt.com