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Titles and Titillation

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

This blog is about creating great titles for stories and novels.

I used to give my Grade Four students “The Best Summer Vacation I Never Had” as a creative writing assignment. I expected them to tell of being captured by pirates or orcs, journeying to the bottom of the sea or flying through the clouds and so on.

Usually, according to Canadian writer Fred Stenson, one of my writing gurus, you cannot craft a decent (or indecent, as the one above) title until you have completed your story, for not until the ink is dry on the ending do you know what the story is all about. But then you have outside-the-box writers such as Harlan Ellison who wrote one of his most successful short stories from two sketches and the artist’s caption: “I have no mouth and I must scream.” Ellison had the perfect title before he put pen to paper.

Usually, writers slap on a working title. I take Stenson’s advice and wait until the end to think about titles. Then I make an audition list of possibles. Here are some categories (see Fred Stenson’s writing book: Thing Feigned or Imagined):

  1. Direct reference to what the story is about, e.g. The Blue and the Gray (American Civil War).

  2. Plays on words related to the story, e.g. The Visitation (a story where a visit totally alters the protagonist), The Sun Also Rises (basically, life after impotence).

  3. The name of the story’s catalyst, e.g. Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel.

  4. Titles where the reader questions. What happens at Eight-Thirty? Three Day Road to where?

  5. Titles that are a puzzle—e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightimeI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

  6. Plays on the connotations of a familiar phrase or quote, e.g. Before I Wake, A Delicate BalanceThe Cold DishFor Whom the Bell TollsInherit the WindWho Has Seen the Wind? and probably Gone With the Wind.

Creating a list of titles is great fun. There are no rules, so you can try anything. I recently wrote a short story about a beaver who dams up a culvert and the frustrated landowner who is forced to clear out the muck and branches each morning. The man is a dormant volcano of anger and repression. I tried various titles that involved damming, plugging, obstructing, all playing on the man’s locked-up emotions. Then on a whim, I looked up the Latin name for our Canadian beaver and the alliterative title came together. I call the story Castor Canadensis and the Clog, which I believe fits my tongue-in-cheek rendering of the tale quite well. This title falls under category two.

When I finished my historical novel—working title Journey of the Northman—an adventure story set in the eleventh century involving a trip by river and land from England to Rome, I discovered that Viking warships were called drakkars, so I considered Drakkars to Rome and such like. I then looked to one of my gurus for help with a title. To be a commercial success, he suggested, I should use words like sword, dagger, moon, scarlet, blood, blades, clash, crowns, ravens, thrones, cold, crystal, castle, and so on. I played with that limited vocab until I settled on Blood Moon Road. The novel wore that title—in my computer—and was offered to at least one agent under that cover, but it just didn’t fit, as if the book was trying to act like something false. Besides, there were at least four other books with that title already in print.

I discussed it with my writer friend, Mary, who is the wise woman/Mother Earth archetype in the Chilliwack Writers Group. Mary suggested looking through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Beowulf for phrases. I checked out the former, then scanned the latter, coming up with a wealth of possible titles, including:

  1. Beyond the Whale Road

  2. One Good King

  3. Out to the Sea’s Flood

  4. To Sail the Swan’s Road 

  5. Flamed and Consumed

  6. Bloodshot Water 

  7. The Sharp-Honed Blade 

  8. That Any Warrior Would Envy 

  9. *A Blade That Boded Well

  10. Over Time and Tide

  11. Scalding Was the Blood

  12. *The Far-Flung Land 

  13. A Web of Chainmail

  14. A Curling of Blood 

  15. No Trembling Harp

  16. In a Place Beyond 

I spoke again to Mistress Mary when I had narrowed the list down. I thought the image of swans flying south over both land and water might well symbolize my main characters’ journeying. Mary told me how swans mate for life, and since the novel is also a love story, I felt I had a winner. Blood Moon Road was re-christened The Swan’s Road. That was some time ago, and the title has stayed in place like a Tilley Hat in a windstorm. This would be a category six title.

So, I hope this is of some help to other writers. I suggest keeping your lists of possibles, so in the future—when you discover that bright-eyed publisher who loves your work but can’t stand your titles—you’ll have plenty to choose from.


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