Aahhhhhh, naming a piece of fiction. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Not necessarily. Giving your baby a name is not like giving your baby a name, if you know what I mean. While we'd like to mold our children into being happy-go-lucky, well-educated scholars, their name doesn't really tell your friends and family what that child is going to be like as he develops. Sure, we could name the child after he grows up, but be prepared to call him 'hey you' which will probably stick for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, in fiction, we're free to choose the title after we've molded the characters and story before sending it out to the readers.
In theory, naming a fiction should be a breeze, perhaps even a
bit of fun. But that's not always the case, and some writers might even
rationalize that it's not the title that matters, as much as the
substance of the story. I totally disagree with this. Title matters!
The title is our novel's first impression to the reader. While people make a first impression with
appearance, wardrobe, body language, facial expression—some of which is
controllable, some of which is not—a story has only its title to tell the reader what it's about. This is
no small element.
It should go without saying that the title should somehow interact with the story. How
it interacts, though, is something every writer should be thinking
about. A title, by its mere existence, can create expectations,
associations, and connections. Mary Gaitskill's collection of stories Bad Behavior
might make us think the stories are going to explore just that—bad
behavior. To some extent they do, but the collection also explores the
value judgment of “bad” through the actions of the characters. The title
of Russell Banks's novel The Sweet Hereafter might make some
think of aftermath, others, heaven. The novel goes on to explore a
town's reaction to the loss of their children in a bus crash. It's not
“sweet” in quite the way we might anticipate, but the word works
From the moment we read a title, we are formulating ideas and making
connections, bringing about meaning. The fiction can go on to satisfy
those things that come to mind, or dispel them. Expectations can be met
or not. Neither is inherently right or wrong, but it's important to be
aware of the associations that come with a title and how your story
follows through on those associations.
Lorrie Moore's title Who Will Run Frog Hospital? gives us a glimpse of the sort of absurd, dry humor that we see in the novel itself. Nelson Algren's title The Man With the Golden Arm brings
up associations of grandness and idolization that are both satisfied
and dashed in the novel. The man with the golden arm is Frankie Machine,
a fantastic card dealer, who can't get out from under his addiction and
guilt. His golden arm makes him admired by some, but in the end, it’s
Shirley Jackson's title "The Lottery" names the event the townspeople
enact annually in that short story. The name brings up associations
both in line with the story (the lottery of a draft) and out of line
(the games of chance that bring fortune.) Cynthia Ozick's title "The
Shawl" might make us think of grandmothers, or comforting warmth. While
the shawl in the story does represent comfort, it is not a protective
comfort. As the soldier throws the young girl against the electric fence
in a concentration camp, it is the shawl that saves the mother from
crying out and losing her own life. It is not a satisfying comfort—this
What do your titles say about your fictions?