Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name...

By Lisabet Sarai

It's not true, of course. The title of a book or story critically influences whether a reader will pick up the book or not. I know that. So I find it particularly aggravating that I'm totally clueless when it comes to generating titles.

Sometimes I get lucky. A title will come to me out of the blue, floating through the ether, and I'll grab it on the way past. "Raw Silk" was like that. I actually had another working title for that novel, but when the new title popped into my head, I knew it was right. (Actually, there are several other books in print with the same title...not a good thing, but a suggestion that other authors agree with me.)

Occasionally, especially with short stories, the title comes before the tale. I wrote “Crowd Pleaser” during a period when my stories tended toward a lot of introspection and emotional complexity. “I should write something that's just a sexy romp,” I thought to myself. “A real crowd pleaser.” I penned “The Antidote” when I was feeling burnt out from writing romance, with all the emphasis on love and a happy ending. “I want to create something totally filthy without any love at all,” I griped internally. “An antidote to all this romance stuff.” Titles sometimes come from other literature, bible quotations, or song lyrics. I have a great title right now, looking for a story, based on a line from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Most of the time, though, I'll agonize over titles and still not be happy with the result.

I recognize a great title when I see it. I can even analyze the factors that distinguish between a perfect title and one that is less so. I just can't generate titles on demand.

First and foremost, a perfect title has music or at least rhythm. It has to trip off the tongue:


“The Naked and the Dead”

“Wuthering Heights”

Second, the words in the title should have powerful connotations. I like titles that use concrete terms with sensual or emotional echoes. That's why I was so pleased with “Raw Silk”. Raw suggests “untamed”, “elemental”, “fierce”, also “innocent” or “untutored”--all appropriate for the book. Silk evokes both softness and strength, as well as having associations with the Orient.

Third, a title needs to be memorable. Sometimes this means surprising. To stick in the mind, a title needs to use lower-frequency words, or high-frequency words in an unexpected combination:

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”


“Snow Crash”

“Love in the Time of Cholera”

Finally, of course, a title needs have some relationship to the subject of the book or story. I personally like titles with double meanings. “Exposure”, for instance, refers first to Stella's occupation as a stripper, second to a roll of film that plays a critical part in the plot, and finally to the secrets that are revealed in the story. “Butterfly” is the name of the bar where the protagonist first meets his lover but also echoes the term that the Thai bar girls use for a man who flits from one woman to the next.

Knowing all this, it would seem that I could construct an algorithm for generating good titles. Maybe I could, if I wanted to spend the time. There are word databases available that have the necessary information on meaning and connotations. One could use artificial intelligence or Bayesian statistics. Maybe I could get a grant...but then I'd get even less writing done than I do now!

So my method for generating titles tends to be pretty haphazard, based on free association. I'll write down some words that seem related to the story. Then I'll write some more words that are suggested by the first words. I'll keep this up for a while. Then I'll start combining and recombining the terms into phrases. When I've got a list of phrases, I'll pick one. Or else I'll get frustrated because I don't like any of them, and give up.

Alas, I also find that without a title, it's difficult for me to start writing. Right now I'm facing a deadline for a BDSM romance story. I have some notion of the characters and the plot. I haven't yet been able to sit down and actually write the first scene, because I'm waiting for inspiration regarding the title.

I do take some consolation from the fact that a book can be successful with a mediocre or even a horrible title. You must admit that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” really doesn't meet most of my criteria.

I'm looking forward to reading what my fellow Grip denizens come up with for this topic. I'm hoping that I'll get some new ideas for producing titles that I don't hate!


  1. Lisabet,

    Exposure, Butterfly and Raw Silk: good titles with good stories suporting them.

    You're right. This week should be illuminating.


  2. Lisabet,

    Raw Silk is a great title.

    If you ever put together that database, let me know. I need it.

  3. Hello, Ash,

    Thanks for the kudos, but for every good title I come up with, I'm sure I have ten duds.

    Sometimes I can't even remember my own titles.


  4. Hello, Kathleen,

    What I have in mind is more than a database - rather, an active application that can generate and then evaluate titles according to the specs I provide.

    It's perfectly feasible, I'm sure. How good would it be? Probably better than my shotgun approach!


  5. This is a fun subject, I love titles. Titles are the difficult because they're like poetry, you have to condense a message into just a couple of words. I've always liked your titles which tend to be short and punchy.


  6. Interesting take on titles, Garceus, in the comparison to poetry.

    I like this topic too. I related to a fair amount of what you said here, Lisabet, except for the part about not feeling moved to write without a title. I find that fascinating. Now that I think about it, I can see how a title might center the inspiration, if you will, and/or provide a tangible identity for what's being written. That had never occurred to me before....

    I have usually looked for a phrase that stands out within the story for my titles; sometimes giving a story a title has been the last step in writing it. Of course, I have only had short stories published, and it might be a whole different matter to title a book (I don't know).

    I like your idea of free associating words you associate with the story and then combining them into phrases. I look forward to borrowing that method next time I'm drawing a blank!


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