Friday, May 18, 2012

Choosing a Title for your Novel

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 nonetheless.

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 useless.

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 scream, unexpressed.

What do your titles say about your fictions?


Gina/Katherine said...

Boy, do I know this! I can't write a word of a new story until I have a title. Sometimes a title comes to me easily. But when it doesn't, (like now), I toss up a working title until the right one comes along. As I inch closer to The End on this work, I'm panicking because it doesn't have a 'real title' yet!
Oh, well. Something will come to me.

Carolyn Hughey said...

Thanks for stopping by, Gina. I was getting lonely. Yeah, I need that title right away too.

One other thing I've done when I can't think of a title is to surf Amazon books in the genre in which I've written to see what others have used. Not that I use their specific titles, but sometimes pulling a title from a couple of books and maybe combining them works. Needless to say, it's not a five minute job.

Sandy Cody said...

You are so right, Carolyn. Choosing the right name for our "babies" can be tricky and it is important. It's the first hint of a book's content that a potential reader sees. As a writer, I've learned that finding the right title sharpens my own perception of my story and helps to bring it into focus.

Carolyn Hughey said...

I totally agree, Sandy. I remember when I chose Shut Up and Kiss Me as a title even though another author had already had a book out by that name. The title was just so perfect for my story nothing else captured the essence of story the way this did. The other considering factor had to do with her genre vs mine being different.

Thanks for stopping by.

Carolyn Brown said...

Like Gina, I have to have a working title. It does change sometimes. My new women's fiction has been through many titles but when we landed on this last one, it's perfect! The Ladies Room was there from the start and never did shift an inch. Something just tells us when it's right! Loved your post, lady!

Beate Boeker said...

I usually have a sort of "master-image" in my head when I start to write a new novel, and often, the title comes from that. A Little Bit of Passion, my latest novel from Avalon, had the simple title "snow" for a very long time, simply because I longed for snow and skiing when I wrote it.
Thank you for this very interesting post, Carolyn!