Finding Your Title

by Brandi Reissenweber

Naming a piece of fiction. It seems so simple, doesn't it? With fiction, unlike naming a child, you have the opportunity to spend some significant time with the story—to understand its theme, personality, mood—before giving it a moniker and sending it out into the big, bad world. 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.

Our title, however, is our story's first impression on the reader (or potential 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. This is no small element.

It should go without saying (even though I’m saying it) 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?

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.