James Heald's picture
James Heald from California is reading The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories January 12, 2015 - 11:37pm

As someone who loves music and finds of myself in the songs I hear, I sometimes want to give my stories the same titles as the songs that inspire a particular emotion or whatever in me. Also, I find that some song titles are very concise, being able to summon up imagery and feelings just on their own. I want to capture that in my titles, but I also feel that it's a little lazy. I know copyright law allows for the use of copying titles, but I'm not concerned about the legal issue, I guess more about the moral issue of co-opting someone elses' work for your own. Thoughts?

Devon Robbins's picture
Devon Robbins from Utah is reading The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones January 13, 2015 - 6:43am

Go for it. Unless it's something popular, it'll be your secret. 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore January 13, 2015 - 7:00am

I think it's lazy. If it was a common-worded title that I later found out happened to exist, I wouldn't sweat it, but I wouldn't deliberately title my own work after someone else's. There's probably already plenty of influence and homage in the writing itself (whether consciously or not), why draw more attention to it at the topmost and most obvious level? Not to mention the discoverability factor. If it's ever published, it'll be buried under search results for the more popular version, and you'll probably get tired of explaining why you titled it what you did.

That said, I agree about a good title's ability to trigger emotions, themes, and ideas, and I often begin there (with my own title ideas, I mean—more so when songs than fiction) and then cascade down, whether it's exploring the title's polysemy through different verses, or just plain brainstorming. I bet you'll find that during the process of writing a story inspired by a song's title, you'll come up with a more appropriate original one.

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies January 13, 2015 - 8:16am

I tend to do it a lot, mostly only Sleigh Bells song titles though, because their songs are always inspiring my stories. You could always just grab a lyric from the song instead.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin January 13, 2015 - 8:50am

What Gordon said.

And sure I'm inspired as hell by music, but to directly use someone elses title or lyric or whatever feels like a cheat. Like stealing, you know?

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies January 13, 2015 - 12:49pm

I don't think you should put that much thought into a title. There shouldn't really be rules to titles.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin January 14, 2015 - 1:52am

^ really? I got to say I disagree. I love titles, i always have to find the perfect title to feel a story is complete (or at least as complete as a story ever is) 

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money January 16, 2015 - 3:57pm

I don't think you should put that much thought into a title. There shouldn't really be rules to titles.

Yeah, but... Titles are pretty important. While I commiserate that we could certainly over think titles, and indeed become so trapped in coming up with the "perfect" title that we never end up writing anything... but a good title is the difference between "Piano Sonata no. 14 in c-sharp minor, op. 27 no. 2" and "The Moonlight Sonata"; or between "The Divine Secrets of the Yahweh Brotherhood of the Traveling Tallitot" and "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff"; or between "Mein Kampfy Chair Burned Up in a Gas Fire; or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bitch Tits" and "Fight Club". (Or maybe "Are You There Tyler? It's me, Tyler") So it seems if you don't put thought into your title, you're doing yourself and your reader a disservice. Or if you don't like my snide sense of humor, some more real world examples: "The High-Bouncing Lover" vs. "The Great Gatsby", "Last Man in Europe" vs. "1984", or "The Dead Un-Dead" vs. "Dracula".

And as for rules, there really aren't any. Even my ridiculous parodies of titles aren't as ridiculous as some actual titles: McCarthy's "C", Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler", Wong's "This Book is Full of Spiders; Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It", Hansen's "Help! A Bear is Eating Me!", Hoffman's "Steal This Book", Moser's "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself"... and these are titles I actually love, even if they might be a little overwrought. They still enliven, and enlighten the works they are "attached" to... and in some cases (Calvino and Moser particularly) could not be anything else. Or even more directly related to the matter at hand, titles like: "The Sound and the Fury", "Something Wicked This Way Comes", "2BR02B", "What Dreams May Come".

Now, sure there is a discussion to be had about the actual relationship between a work and its title. Is a title simply a label to identify each work uniquely (Such that Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor is actually a better title than "Fur Elise" (especially since we don't know who Elise was)) or is the title an active part of the work (Such that Work in Progress and Untitled #3 are actually incomplete works)? Is it different for each work and each title? And if so isn't it incorrect to make blanket statements about how much thought to put into a title? Perhaps it's uncharitable of me to put so little weight on the modifier "that much thought", but if the conclusion we draw from the statement is "you shouldn't put that much thought into a title" is "therefore it's okay to use someone else's title..." nèe stealing someone else's title, then there seems to be an issue somewhere in that train of thought.

Because I have to concur that using other people's titles feels weird. At least for the reason: "I find that some song titles are very concise, being able to summon up imagery and feelings just on their own." Because of course you do. Someone conceived of and used that song title for specifically that reason. Part of your job as a writer is to do that for your own work. There certainly seems to be an argument to be made that if you can't come up with an original title that summons up the imagery/feelings/ideas that you want, then how could you possibly write an original story that summons up the imagery/feeling/ideas that you want. Not to say that this is necessarily the case, because there is a difference between choosing a title reflective of, or inherently related to your work even though (or even because) it is a part of someone else's work; and having no recourse but to use someone else's title because it was better than anything you could come up with... or because you didn't "put that much thought into" it. Or even worse, because it's not a popular work so no one would ever know... it's not wrong as long as you don't get caught?

And perhaps it's simply a matter of some slippery-slope fallacy, but it seems quite easy to move from "this title for this song expertly expresses what I want in my story, so I'll just use that" to "this bit of dialogue in this novel expresses what I want in my story so I'll just use that" or description, or character, or scene... Especially, again, if the goal is to not think too much about it.

Now I can't help but feel I'm being tyrannical and/or pedantic and contradictory (not to mention prolix, so I promise I'll stop soon (I am almost out of wine anyway...)) on this point, considering I fully appreciate reference, and allegory, and appropriation. All the titles I gave earlier taken from Shakespeare, are great as titles, and don't detract from the work for being "from Shakespeare". And if I were pressed, I would say yes, absolutely it is fine to use titles that were taken from other work, if it was work that inspired your own. But so far, everyone in this thread that has said yes, do it, it's fine because "x", has a horrible justification. You shouldn't use someone else's title just because it was a good one. You shouldn't use someone else's title because you didn't want to think about it too much. And you definitely shouldn't use someone else's title because it's obscure so no one will ever find out and it'll be your secret. Those are all bad, if not outright self-contradictory. You could use a title derived from (or coincidentally related to) someone else's work if you're prepared for the comparison you are necessarily drawing between your work and theirs. As Gordon points out, if you do it, you're going to have to answer that question, "Why did use that title from 'x'?" If your answer is, it was just a better title than I could come up with, or I didn't want to think about it too much, or I didn't think anyone would notice... That just seems weak if not outright wrong. But if your answer is that you wanted to draw that comparison to develop further the ideas that someone else started, or to contrast the conclusions you've drawn from an idea from what someone else may have gotten wrong, or because you wanted to show that the ideas they presented in their work still holds up in this new context you've developed for them, and all of which draws upon the necessary comparison you are entering into with your work, then yes, you can do it. You're still making it harder for yourself than you need to, but you can do it.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories January 16, 2015 - 9:33pm

XyZy---I don't see you nearly enough on the forum.  I always enjoy reading your take on things. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated January 18, 2015 - 12:55am

I wonder if it matters? Star Wars sounds at least to the point, but if it had been a flop would it just sound silly? 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore January 18, 2015 - 7:42am

A great title isn't critical to success, but it helps, especially these days for distinction. Back in '77, there wasn't nearly as much content out in the world, or such ease with which to consume it.

Also, great post as always, XyZy.

James Heald's picture
James Heald from California is reading The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories January 18, 2015 - 8:25pm

Thanks for all the insight, especially yours, XyZy, I guess it goes deeper than just song titles. Honestly, the hard part about coming up with an original idea is that whenever I start to put my ideas to paper and begin focusing on them, someone else has already had that idea and expressed far more eloquently than I could. I'm not trying to discourage myself from writing, but I'm afraid of finding myself copying instead.

James Heald's picture
James Heald from California is reading The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories January 18, 2015 - 8:29pm

Didn't mean to post twice...

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies January 19, 2015 - 8:33am

I can't...

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies January 19, 2015 - 1:04pm

There's a comic book out right now that's kind of popular called Burn the Orphanage, which is a line from a Sleigh Bells song. Some of the other titles from the series are named after Sleigh Bells lyrics and songs. But if you read them, they have nothing to do with Sleigh Bells, it was just the inspiration. The comic actually caught my attention because of that fact. It's not licensed by Sleigh Bells, it's not associated with them. People who don't know it's from a Sleigh Bells song aren't even going to notice and people (like me) who do notice aren't going to think it's a big deal or that it detracts from the story.

You can come up with a completely original and fresh story and still borrow a title, yes. I do it all the time. I have a story called Boogie Night that got published by the second place I sent it to and performed very well in a workshop. Nobody said a word about where I got the title from, nobody said anything about the other titles I've borrowed from songs. If anything, they've complimented the titles.

Your title should be inspired by your story yes, but your story can also be inspired by a title. It doesn't matter, titles aren't that big of a deal in the big scheme of your story. And if you're writing big blocks of text to explain why you shouldn't borrow titles, then you're doing something wrong. Just remember: