Think of the title to your story as the ultimate headline.
It’s the first thing an editor reads of your work. Titles are often used by one reader to describe the story to another reader. According to Kaathryn Bohnhoff, author of The Crystal Rose, “titles can determine whether a story is read, in what spirit it’s read, and whether it’s remembered by name or forgotten.” Choose it wisely.
Three Cardinal Rules for Title Selection
When choosing a title for your story it should be: 1) original; 2) easy to read; and 3) appropriate to your story. These might seem straight forward, even simplistic to you at first. But I bet you can come up with some titles that didn't follow these rules and may have sent you off with the wrong expectations. I can think of a few...
Make your title original (like your story) and preferably unusual in some way. It’s best to use something that is different enough to stand out but not so different that it will be difficult to remember. It should “role” off the tongue with ease. Titles are best if they are short and not difficult to pronounce. One way to check this is to read it out loud. Some publicists have suggested that a title should be short enough (and therefore large enough) to be read from across a room. One or two word titles are often chosen for that reason. Lastly, your title should reflect the subject or heart of your story, but without giving it away. A title should be the ultimate tease, the ultimate promise. Titles, says Bohnhoff “can be like store windows that offer a tantalizing glimpse of what’s inside, or they can give away the entire inventory.”
Types of Titles
The best titles are those that grow naturally out of the subject matter and capture the emotion and heart of the story. A title can be a play on words (e.g., You Only Live Twice) or convey several meanings at once (e.g., Darwin’s Paradox). A title could be the name of a place, thing or person (e.g., Doctor Zhivago). Titles can be metaphors or provide contradiction or irony (e.g., Calculating God). They can be a popular expression or harbor a hidden meaning that unfolds in the story (e.g., Pale Fire). They can also be a portion of a famous line (e.g., Brave New World).
Some Titles Are Better Than Others
I chose the title, Collision with Paradise for my 2005 science fiction romantic thriller to convey the paradox of conflict and action in collision with the quest for well-being (paradise) that reflected my lead character’s own conflict. The two juxtaposed as oxymoron made the title provocative and readers became naturally curious. What made it particularly tantalizing—and me somewhat smug—was that the cover and the setting and premise/plot all resonated with the abstract theme. The plot involved the real collision of a spaceship with hotshot pilot on a planet with a jungle paradise. So, even though the title very accurately conveyed the overall theme, it didn’t give it away; the reader still had to tease it out through the subtext and subplots of the story.
Whatever title you select, remember the three rules and keep it simple and relevant. Think of some titles of your favorite stories. Think of what the title conveys and what it quietly implies, given your knowledge of the story. Here are some to ponder: A Tale of Two Cities; Gone With the Wind; White Oleander; Lady Chatterley’s Lover; The Blue Sword; Return of the Native; Lord of the Flies.