So I’m going to say something controversial, yet brave: Titles are hard.
For me, titles have always been hit or miss (as you’ve probably noticed with my Vignettes). I’ve always just kind of gone with the first thing that I thought sounded good. Recently, though, a beta reader for a novella I wrote last year said that based on the title he expected to read a romantic comedy, which does not describe the actual story. That got me thinking about what titles should do and after paying more attention to some of the titles of things I enjoy, I settled on four things that I think a title should strive to do. Not always all at once, but in some combination that gets a reader’s attention.
BE DESCRIPTIVE, BUT NOT OVERLY SO
This is the trap I most often find myself falling into; my titles are too descriptive. My instinct is always to use my title to describe what the story is about. A good instinct! It’s important to offer a hint to the reader what they’re about to dive into. But being overly descriptive can also be bland, boring, and other bad things that may or may not start with “b.”
For example, Stephen King’s short story A Very Tight Place is very descriptive if you’ve read it, but not so descriptive as to give away the story or feel too familiar. Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers is also descriptive, but still holds an air of mystery that piques one’s interest. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War describes the story by combining something we’re all familiar with–a war–with something that seems impossible–a war that never ends. In that way it feels fresh and interesting. Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End is descriptive in a way that isn’t apparent until the last bits of the novel have been digested.
I think that’s the trick to these types of titles: They give a hint to the reader as to what they’re about while also meeting one of more of the next criteria.
HINT TO GENRE
As I mentioned above, the title I had settled on for my novella was descriptive, but misleading. Great titles can indicate what genre they are regardless of where they’re found.
No one would ever mistake The Twilight Zone for anything other than science fiction, for example. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country tells you exactly what sort of book it will be, and informs the read of its tone at the same time. Same with The Martian Chronicles. That title tells you its genre, what it’s about, and even its format (a chronicle of related but unconnected stories). In the horror realm, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay sets the expectation that his book is psychological with horror elements with its word choice.
People have expectations for the genre they’re reading and a title should reflect that. Word choice matters and lots of readers associate specific genres with certain words. When I say “dark” or “black” or “nightmare” you would assume I’m describing a horror or thriller. When I say “ship” or “planet” you might assume a space epic. These are all considerations to take when titling a story.
The most important thing a title can do is entice a reader to pick up the book. In that sense, it helps to be provocative. A little mysterious. Promise something that the reader may not have seen before.
Haruki Murakami achieves this with 1Q84. It’s familiar, a riff on Orson Welles’s 1984, but spins it just off-kilter to be interesting on its own. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes makes the reader wonder just what is wicked and where it might be headed. I know that was enough for me to crack open the book. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male sounds counter-intuitive (how can there be excess people?) while also describing the plot.
Stories with something unique at their center, something specific to that story, often make good titles. Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, for example. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. Or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Again, anything that will grab a reader’s attention.
SET THE TONE
A good title should clue the reader into the tone of the story. This is related to being descriptive and hinting at the genre, but is slightly different. Hinting at the tone can tell your reader if your story is heavy or lighthearted, serious or satirical, or any other number of things along this spectrum. Twilight Zone episodes, with each episode its own unique thing, excelled at this. For example, I know the episode “Nightmare as a Child” is likely to be heavier in tone than “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” “In Praise of Pip” tells me the story is likely to be nostalgic, while “One More Pallbearer” is likely to be dark.
The October Country, mentioned earlier, is another great example of setting the tone for the (in this case) collection with the title. We have a specific idea of what October feels like and Bradbury leaned into that for the stories presented. Same with King’s Just After Sunset.
In short, in my opinion a lot of the heavy lifting a title does is setting reader expectations. Describing what sort of story they’re getting, hinting a plot, genre, and tone. Not every title needs to do everything, but I think that the more of these quadrants (because there are four?) you can hit, the stronger the title.