Storyville: Great Titles—Hooking Your Readers
So today we are going to be talking all about titles and hooks—how your title can grab your readers and kick off the story with information, excitement, and mystery. I’ll be focusing on my own work, because I can provide some insight into the process, and what the story and titles mean to each other, as well. Let’s dig right in.
What Should A Title Do?
There are a number of things that a title should do, or CAN do, anyways. It should give you some sort of an idea about the story—is this going to be a happy story, a sad story? Is this fantasy, science fiction, or horror? It should give you some clue as to the emotion involved in the narrative. And it should pull the reader in—entice them with interesting word choices, juxtapositions, irony, mystery, and layers of meaning. Let’s talk about all of that.
How Long Should Your Title Be?
I think it really depends on the story, right? I mean, if Stephen King can get away with It, then anything goes. For my novels, all three are one word titles—Transubstantiate, Disintegration, and Breaker. Why? Probably because they are focused on one idea or emotion, throughout. Whereas my collections? Usually longer titles—Herniated Roots, Staring into the Abyss, and Tribulations. But the unsaid language that is paired with the last one, is a longer sentence—trials and tribulations, right? Just left off the trials part—it’s inferred. The collections are a wider range of voices, emotions, and genres—so it’s probably wise to go with a broader idea, wider range. My short stories are all over the place—one word, a few words, and even longer ones, such as “Twenty Reasons to Stay, and One to Leave.” The idea is that the title needs to be as long as it needs to be—it just has to relate to the story, and give us a way in. One word, five, or ten—your call.
When I think about titles, I think about emotion. Partly because quite often I use titles that are all about emotion, state of mind, atmosphere, a moment in time, etc. We can go back to Transubstantiate (which really just means to change) and Disintegration (all manner of things falling apart—physically, mentally, spiritually) and even Breaker (it’s what he does with his hands, but it’s also about breaking a cycle of abuse). What’s important here is that each of these three titles gives you a clue, but none of them give away the entire story. So I have a lot of stories that have titles that involve emotion—“Love Letters,” “Stillness,” “Surrender,” “Rapture,” and “Splintered,” for example. That’s always a good way to kick off a story, letting the reader know right from the start what kind of vibe this story has. “How Not to Come Undone,” is another recent story.
I like to also use unique words, foreign languages, and phrases that aren’t common. I think it started with a class I took with Max Barry. I titled four exercises with words that were somewhat obscure—vainglorious was one. I just like saying that, the way it rolls off your tongue. I think incarnate was another. And transubstantiate. Yep, that became my first novel. “Transmogrify” was another early title (just means to transform). Later I’d write a story entitled “Chrysalis” which had a lot to do with transformation, with birth and death (seasonal, in nature, of ideas, etc.). I wrote a bit of flash entitled “Gandaberunda” after a two-headed mythological creature. Lately I’ve been tapping into all kinds of weird words and phrases. “Hiraeth” is one, which means, a longing or nostalgia for a place that you’ve never seen, which may not even exist. That really kicked off my idea and helped me chase down a pretty strange story. Same with “Saudade,” which basically means a deep desire for a person or thing that is absent. And then the latest, “Nodus Tollens,” (click over for video) is even more complicated—but basically the idea that your life and current narrative doesn’t make sense to you, pushing you to revisit past moments of perceived unimportance, only to realize that all along you were supposed to decide your own fate. So, that’s one way to title your story. See if the reader will put in the effort to look it up, to dig deeper. You can also use technical words— from science, for example, or nature.
Tip of the Iceberg
What you’re really trying to do here is show us the tip of the iceberg—before the first sentence, where the hook usually is; or the first paragraph, the second hook; the first page, the third hook; the first scene, the fourth hook; and if it’s a novel, the first chapter (the last initial hook). THE VERY TIP. I think I have a lot of titles that fit this criteria, hopefully most or all of them, if I’m doing my job right. “After She Has Gone,” well that kicks it off right there. The same for, “The Offering on the Hill.” We better get some sort of offering, on a hill, right? (And we do.) But you have the visual there, the hill, to start, and the offering—what kind, is it religious, a sacrifice, a bargaining, what? You have to read to find out. “Say Yes to Pleasure” is another title that is a little elusive, but gives you some idea of what the story is about right away…the call to action, the idea of saying yes, of indulging. “Chasing Ghosts,” one more that I like because it gives you a visual (although there are no literal ghosts in this story, but a paranoia, a creation of false realities) and action, as well.
Person, Place, or Thing
If you’re hard up, you can always just tell us who the main character is, the place, or even an important object. I have a few with names; better if you add a bit more to it—“Misty” not as good as say, “Charlotte Sometimes” (yes, the Cure song, LOL). For place, obviously, the stranger the location, the more obscure, the better, right? You can be general, like “The Wastelands” or “On a Bent Nail Head.” You can be specific—“Dyer” or “Terrapin Station.” And here are a few with key objects from the stories: “White Picket Fences,” and “Little Red Wagon.” What’s nice is if the objects are innocent before the story, taking on an entirely different meaning after it’s all over. This has a chance to stay with the reader, and haunt them.
Pulling a Line From the Story
One of the best ways to get a title, IMO, is to pull a line from the story. I usually don’t grab the first line, because that’s repetitive right away, but often something from the middle, or even better, the last line. “Asking for Forgiveness” is a perfect example. You get some sense of what’s coming, at least some of the emotion, the bargain, the plea inherent here, and then when it repeats as the last line it should really echo and pop. “How Not to Come Undone” is another title that pulls part of a line from the end of the story.
A Title That Makes More Sense After The Story Is Over
Sometimes the title doesn’t make sense until AFTER you’re done. And I think that’s an okay approach too. My story, “Balance Sheet,” is named after a pretty boring accounting term, until you realize what has been given and taken in the telling of the events. “From Within” is another one that seems kind of quiet and reserved until it’s all over, and then you realize that I’ve actually given away part of the story, you just didn’t realize it. It also helps if that title has multiple meanings (which it does). “Dance, Darling,” is another example, something uttered by a German soldier, in German, to a couple of concentration camp prisoners. It will echo throughout the story, becoming more sinister as we read on.
A Broad Philosophy
Sometimes you want to put a bigger idea out there, and that’s a good way to title your work as well. Staring into the Abyss comes from a quote from Frederick Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster; for when you stare into the abyss, it stares back into you.” I’m paraphrasing here, but the idea being that the collection is dangerous—be careful, you’ve been warned—these stories may change you, make you complicit, affect you in return. (I also have a story entitled “Battle Not with Monsters.”) I have another story entitled “Sugar and Spice,” which pulls from the children’s nursery rhyme about boys and girls. It’s a coming of age story about a girl and her father trying to deal with the idea that he’s losing her, she’s growing up, and there’s very little he can do to keep her safe. He realizes that he really doesn’t know her that well: “Sugar and spice, everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.
Layers of Meaning
Your story title can often mean many things, and those are the titles that I think really work well. Disintegration is obviously a broad title, and covers a lot. But take something like “Tinkering with the Moon.” It’s at least two things—tinkering as in building or fixing or playing with something (which the boy does, with Tinkertoys no less) and also brings into focus the moon, which comes up in the story in several places—the thing he’s building is a rocket, his father going to NASA, and the ending. It’s magical realism, so it really fits well, I think.
As you can see, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Can I say that these days? Is that un-PC? I love cats, don’t get me wrong. Your title is as personal as your voice, your first line, your choice of genre/s and the POV of your protagonist. As you can see, some of my titles are better than others. Some were lazy, when I was just getting started. Some were probably just a little too clever for their own good. Maybe a bit pompous. But when you get ready to title your next story, dig deep, see how it can be the first hook, the tip of the iceberg, how it can hint at the story without revealing everything. At least you didn’t call your novel It, right?
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