It seems like titles should be a reward. After the long struggle of making a story that is acceptable to all eyes including your own, the title should be the cherry on top of the most magnificent ice cream sundae of all time.
Titling, however, often seems more difficult than finding a perfect magical cherry, which tastes like rainbows, on a pomegranate tree, growing in Antarctica.
Titles should, while providing the initial hook to a story, not give too much away or rely on cliche. The best titles hint at main themes and maintain the tone of the story they’re describing. On a practical level, you want your title not to be too long, and in case you ever want to read this story aloud or ever speak of it again, the title should be pronounceable.
This is a Herculean task for anyone running the last lap of revisions before submission. It is crueler than the fancy of a bitter Greek goddess.
To help, here are a couple of methods that have worked for me in the past when confronted with finding a final title.
Write down anything and everything that could be a title. Write down your working titles, your pretentious titles, even your mad joke titles. Themes, character names, places, everything goes into the list. A purely hypothetical ironic vampire anthology of mine has, via this method, been titled everything from “Sanguine Hearts” to “The Eternal Watery Light of the Dead Moon,” and approximately 50 other things in between. Most of the titles on this list are utterly worthless, but even if nothing good comes from it, some of the more disastrous possibilities have been eliminated.
When endless list-making has worn down your titling spirit, make your friends title your story for you. Sometimes you will meet a titling guru, and then you can use them forever as your personal source for good titles. Even if you don’t have a guru, bouncing titles off of other people is often a good idea. “Forbidden Union” might sound really wonderful, until a good friend points out that you are not writing a romance novel.
If words fail you, steal some from somewhere else. Quotes, taken in partial or out of context, are often great ways to think of titles. These quotes may come from the story you’re titling, or from a connected source. Don’t be afraid to twist a quote according to your needs–many good titles come somewhat bastardized. Trawling the internet or a nearby book of English poetry for snappy phrases is a delightful time-sink, and occasionally yields exactly what you need.
The Working Title
There is also the lazy man’s way. When working on a story, it has to be called something, and that’s at least sort of similar to a title. Titles, for me, come in three types. Working titles, cleaned-up working titles, and actual titles. There’s a certain amount of horizontal transfer between the last two categories, because coming up with an actual title makes me feel like I want to stab my eyes out, so I tend to give up once I have something barely passable.
All of these methods and more can be mixed and matched until you have an arsenal of titling methods. The List, the Quote, and the Guru combined leads to magnificent group brainstorming sessions. Never underestimate the power of a friend with near-encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare quotes.
There are very few hard and fast rules about titling (I would be wary of puns, I suppose) which is precisely why they’re so hard to pick. Sometimes it seems like there are thousands of titles, each of which is not the title. A title should fit your story, but every story is different—what is dreadfully inappropriate for one story is perfect for another. The dark philosophical story that asks the question “what if the French Revolution happened in space?” should probably not be titled “Beauregard Goes to the Moon in June.” Likewise, the comedy with the dapper wizard and his talking hedgehog is not going to fare well with a title like “The Son of the Endless.” The point is that while these hapless titles aren’t right for their example stories, they’re not inherently flawed—they’re just mismatched.
The only way to eliminate this last task of story writing, it seems, is to have a title in mind at the start. So, to all the title-weary in the world, my final piece of advice is to write whatever story is called “Beauregard Goes to the Moon in June” and hope that the title still fits when you’re finished. Otherwise it’s back to the titling board.