- Prolific editor John Joseph Adams wrote his thoughts on what makes a good title.
- Short stories need longer titles than novels, as they stand without cover art.
- The best titles hook attention with tension.
- Other approaches are to use slang or jargon, or to reference well-known quotes.
Adams is the editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines as well as a long list of anthologies, so he’s slushed his way through as many story titles as anyone. He’s also had the forgettable experience of rejecting my stories more than a few times, so I’m keen to learn anything I can from him to break the trend. The starting point might be to consider Adams’s question of whether, in the absence of any information other than the title:
Would you rather read “Dune” or “The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas”?
The draw of Omelas
The question is important because it draws attention to two points. First of all, it cuts to the point of a short story title: to make you want to read the story. Secondly, it illustrates the difference between a short story title and a novel title. Dune works perfectly on the cover of a novel. It’s so short that you’ve read it the moment you’ve set eyes on it. It combines with cover art depicting a desert landscape and a writhing sandworm, it combines into a powerful hook.
It wouldn’t work as well with a short story, where it would have to stand without the supporting artwork. We usually see them in a table of contents and while many publications do commission artwork for their stories, we don’t see it until we’ve at leastturned to the story. A short story title must hook your attention on its own. So what does the title of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas, achieve that’s so much more effective than Omelas or Walking Away would have been.
The full title is a complete enough sentence to tell a small story in itself, but it’s a story that begs questions. What is Omelas? Why is it significant that someone is walking away from it? If the ones who walk away are the interesting ones, what differentiates them from the ones who are hanging around with, in or on Omelas?
To beg those questions, a title must be longer than Dune. In a list of examples of stories Adams accepted but retitled, his title is invariably longer than the one it replaced:
The Five Elements of the Heart Mind by Ken Liu, submitted as Visceral.
A Tank Only Fears Four Things by Seth Dickinson, submitted as Kontakt-5.
The Mad Butcher of Plainfield’s Chariot of Death by Adam Howe, submitted as The Ed Gein Ghoul Car.
The World is Cruel, My Daughter by Cory Skerry, submitted as Silk, Eyes, Bones, and Nothing More.
The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee, submitted as Knifebird’s Game.For my money, Knifebird’s Game would pull me straight to that story, but Adams is the expert.
Short story, long title
Supporting the idea that short titles may not be the best is the list of the most common titles submitted to Clarkesworld, posted by editor Neil Clarke. The one thing they have in common is that they are short. They are also generic. It’s easy to see how a writer might see Rebirth, for example, as cutting to the heart of their story but if I saw that title in a table of contents, it would not intrigue me into turning to it.
So next time I’ve got a story ready to submit with a naff title, what do I do to give it something better? Adams makes a suggestion:
This might not be something you, as the author, can easily do yourself—you might be too close to the text—but if you have a trusted beta-reader or a significant other, you might try tasking them with finding and highlighting the phrases they find most evocative, and then review those to see if perhaps one of those phrases might make a better title than what you have already.
I’ve found that one of the many advantages of a critique group is that when people get to know someone else’s work, they can often come up with more succinct summaries than the writer himself, who is often so caught up with hunting the plotholes and the snippetsof ugly prose around the forest of their creation that they can no longer see the wood for the trees. Adams suggests that finding the most evocative phrase may be a way forward, although he does add the qualification that it risks the reader giving too much weight to that phrase when they reach it in the text.
If you’re going to ask a critiquer to suggest a title, there’s no reason to confine them to phrases from the text. In future, I may well ask for a set of wild suggestions and see where that takes me.
The best short story title I’ve come across of is The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree jr, which leads me to ask myself why those three words draw me. It’s not a full sentence like The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas but a much more traditional title structure of article, adjective and noun. I think it’s the tension between the words ‘screwfly’ and ‘solution’. ‘Screwfly’ conjures something inherently unpleasant. Flies aren’t the most charismatic beasts to take wing and while I don’t know where the screwfly fits into the dipteran tribe, it’s a name that sounds like it was conferred by someone who had seen them up to no good. Yet a solution implies that somehow these nasty critters might solve a problem. Solving problems is a good thing, isn’t it? But if someone sees screwflies as the solution to a problem, is it a problem that I’d really want solved?
What it doesn’t do is tell me anything at all about what’s in the story, unlike the titlessuggested by Adams. It sets up such an evocative sense of tension that it makes me want to read the story to resolve it.
None of those thoughts and questions were my conscious reactions to that title. They were an involuntary reaction that I’ve been consciously examining in my hunt for a way of finding better titles for my own stories.
The titling jig
Adams suggests a couple of approaches. For stories aimed at a particular demographic, certain words might have a particular resonance. He mentions Respawn as an example for a story in an anthology about gaming, aimed at gamers. I’m not a gamer and the only reason the word means anything to me is from reading Christoper Brookmyre’s Bedlam, a novel that I expect a gamer would get more out of than I did.
I’ve tried a variation on that theme myself, by using slang or jargon phrases that simply sound evocative: Newgate Jig was from old London slang. Every Monday, a gallows was set up outside Newgate prison, the prisoners were marched out and as they hanged, their death throes looked like a macabre dance. Hence being hanged was to dance the Newgate jig. Only people like me, with an affinity for the darker sides of London’s history, are likely to recognise the term but there was something evocative enough about it that I decided to use it.
I duly plugged the title into Amazon, as I do with all my titles. I want to make sure there was nothing else under the title that was well-enough known that I’d look derivative. It was all mine, so off it went to look for a home. The week it was published, I walked into a bookshop and saw Newgate Jig by Ann Featherstone on the stand where they put the booksthey really want you to buy. It hadn’t appeared in my search because it had only just been published. I can’t imagine that I did Ms Featherstone’s reputation any harm; in fact I very much doubt she’s even heard of me, but here is as good a place as any for an explanation.
The title as homage
Another suggestion is to use or to repurpose a quote, such as Cory Doctorow’s Anda’s Game which pays homage to Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game. A pitfall of using quotes is that there are very few quotes that everyone will recognise, and they’ve all been homaged into cliché. Even if Anda’s Game was aimed at a dedicated science fiction readership, I must have been seen by people who either hadn’t heard of Ender’s Game or didn’t make the connection. It is, however, a title that stands reasonably well on its own, which is a necessary qualification for a title that uses a literary reference.
To use another one of my stories as an example, I can’t remember if I was trying to be clever when I picked Perchance to Dream or if I’d got so frustrated and went with the first title I’d thought of that didn’t make me cringe. I do remember that I’d called it What Dreams May Come for a while, which is lifted from Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. The ‘dreams’ the dithering prince is referring to is the afterlife that awaits him after thesleep of death, which dissuade him from suicide. As the story took place in a labyrinthine bureaucracy that unwitting souls are condemned to – a theme many writers of the weird visit sooner or later – it seemed a particularly apposite quote and one that indulged my weakness for Shakespeare. As it was looking for a home, a Robin Williams film appeared under the same title (yes, this was some years ago now) so I moved down the soliloquy to Perchance to Dream.
Looking back, I ask myself if I made the right decision. It doesn’t mean much unless you recognise the quote, which you’ll only do if you’re familiar with Hamlet. On the other hand it does have a pleasing ring to it, and the story is now in press after the third time I’ve sold it under that title so it must have something going for it.
Advocacy in brief
We’re left with the question of how important a title really is. Adams’s examples of replaced titles do illustrate the fact that he’ll retitle a story rather than reject it, and Neil Clarke says:
Changing a title is easy, so if I don’t like it, I’ll discuss that with the author.No doubt Clarke is sincere when he says he doesn’t look at a title unless and until he’s decided to buy the story, but I also find it hard to believe that there aren’t editors and slush readers who do look at the title first. They may not make a decision on the basis of it but if they’ve never heard of the writer and they know they’re going to reject 95-99% of the enormous slushpile they’re working their way through, every little has to count.
Adams describes the title as ‘the only constant advocate it will ever have over the course of its lifespan’, which is worth taking it heart. Now I just need to do it better.