What’s in a Title?
by Don Webb
Our Submissions page explains our policy about titles. It says what we don’t want and why, but it doesn’t offer much help in choosing one. A veteran contributor recently tried “brainstorming” a story title, and the ensuing discussion has yielded some helpful hints.
Our guidelines say, if I may paraphrase:
Many authors seem to consider titles a necessary evil; that may explain why one-word titles are all the fashion these days. A title that consists only of a single common part of speech, usually a noun, is catchy only by rare exception; it will almost certainly be nondescript and unattractive. I can think of two classic science fiction stories with titles that are complete sentences.
Not only do one-word titles risk duplicating earlier titles at Bewildering Stories, they will be very hard to search for, even if the prospective reader knows who the authors are.
Okay, but what to do? Here’s a tip: remember the visual presentation of Bewildering Stories.
Some other webzines resemble books lying open on a table. They may plop a text right in front of you at the outset. Or they may give you at least the opening paragraphs before you have to click on what we call a “proceed” link in order to continue.
Bewildering Stories has no room for that on the home page. Rather, our layout resembles not a table so much as a bookstore. Visitors can see, without leaving the page or clicking on any link, everything Bewildering Stories has to offer. We don’t have a site map because our home page already is a site map. And in every issue, the contents are arranged by genres, authors, and titles.
And that is how visitors will pick and choose. They’ll look first for their favorite genres and authors. And for the rest, our Readers’ Guides supply the equivalent of “jacket blurbs” for everything but poetry. Titles, then, are an added incentive.
A title has to do a number of things at once. It should:
Imply a question to which the readers will want to know the answer.
Taking examples immediately at hand, issue 446 has two particularly catchy titles: “The Man With a City in His Head” and “Seeing Under, Seeing Over.”
The titles force readers to think, “How can anyone have a city in his head? And what does it mean?” Likewise: “Seeing what and where?”
Be descriptive or at least accurate.
Ambiguity is good. In issue 446, “Head-On” implies a collision of some sort, and one does occur in the story. However, the title also has other meanings, and they are also at the center of the story.
The title “Beth’s Garden” is not ambiguous but the name “Beth” makes it descriptive and suggests the question “Who’s Beth?” If the title had been simply “The Garden,” we would have asked for a different one.
Not give the story away.
A title may raise the questions Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why. But it must not answer the questions. You want to motivate readers to open the story, not make them think: “Okay, now that I’ve read the title, I don't need to know any more.”
Thus, the title Give Them Wine — which is, incidentally, a complete sentence — raises primarily the question “why?” Well and good. However, the subtitle “A Disparity of Language” is less felicitous: it may raise the question “what?” but the subject is a commonplace; why should we care what the disparity is? Rather than raise an interesting question, the subtitle answers the question “how?” by identifying a source of dramatic tension in the novel — and not necessarily the most important one, at that.
It’s best to avoid 18th-century style “long titles,” which in some cases are their own jacket blurbs.
The biggest best-seller in 18th-century France was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Heloise: letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps. That’s average to short, as long titles go. It answers the questions “who?” and “where?” at the same time as it raises the question “How does this story retell the one of Abelard and Eloise?” The long title gave contemporary readers a lot of interesting information, but today’s readers wouldn’t see the point.
What about character names? They have a time-honored tradition. Balzac commonly used character names as titles mainly, I suspect, as a record-keeping strategy. He wrote so prolifically that he risked forgetting who and what the stories were about.
One can never be too careful with character names. Balzac’s are always distinctive. Likewise, in issue 446, “Endymion” is a unique name and, like Rousseau’s “Heloise,” which is fairly unusual, refers to an earlier, well-known story.
On the other hand, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer has a title that’s as commonplace as can be. But the choice is understandable: the only name Mark Twain would allow to upstage his own is that of Huckleberry Finn.
It’s easy to overuse character names. The play Amphytrion 38 has the number suffix because the author, Jean Giraudoux, did some research and counted thirty-seven previous works with the same title. At Bewildering Stories we would appreciate Giraudoux’s predicament and sense of irony, but we normally frown upon titles that piggyback on classic works or well-known names, presumably for surreptitious Google ranking. “Endymion” is a notable exception. But a title like “Frankenstein 86”? Sorry, no. Confessions of the Creature? Most definitely yes.
Speaking of numbers, your Managing Editor has recently had to blow the whistle on titles containing six-digit numbers. It’s a practical decision: readers will pay no attention to anything beyond the first three digits and will certainly take no interest in a title that looks like a logarithm.
In the end, a title is not a part of a story, essay or poem; it’s the name of the work. And one can never be too careful in choosing names.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories