Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Titling, Titles, and the Process Whereby We Condemn or Bless Works of Literature to be Forever Branded

by Nathan Norton

The title of a story is more than the act of picking the central image of the work and regurgitating it in front of all the other words you spewed onto the page. That’s just plain lazy. Your title is the first thing about your story the reader reads, people. Have some pride. Or, conversely, have absolutely no pride and then title it. But whatever you do, don’t use adequate amounts of pride while titling.

The title is the awning that stretches across the entirety of your story and casts its shadow on every syllable therein, coloring a reader’s perception of the prose. It’s important.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic. It probably is. But it’s also true.  When a reader consumes the title of a story, then moves on to the meat of the thing, that title is always looming somewhere under the surface, altering how one perceives the tale being spun. If a story is labeled: Vixens, Foxes, and a Couple of Field Mice, a reader is going to be on the lookout for vixens, foxes, and some field mice. This could be literal, metaphorical, analogical, whatever, but even if they aren’t aware they’re doing it, they’ll look for it. This could dramatically alter how someone reads a piece of fiction. Keep this in mind while you construct your titles.

If you’ve never read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, I’m about to ruin it for you. It’s a fantastic satirical essay (here being cited for fiction, since sarcasm is the writer’s tongue of choice here and his approach is from a narrator with entirely fictional ideals from Swift’s own, in the literal sense) about how the impoverished Irish of 1729 could ease their financial troubles by selling children as edible delicacies to rich folk.

While we read, we are on the lookout for this titular proposal. When we realize what exactly it is, we are, for your understatement of the day, surprised. He’s modestly proposing the eating of babies. Like, with a fork and stuff. For a treat. Swift goes as far as to present possible ways to prepare the children as if they’re not small human people, but inanimate delicious blobs of tasty. He argues his point with actual monetary advantages they would be actual good ideas if it wasn’t for the whole cannibalism of small children, send your soul directly to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200 thing. The sarcasm and absurdity is so extreme throughout, we realize it was in play even in the title.

A title’s primary job is to subtly temper every element of a story, regardless of length, into a fun-size Halloween pumpkin-shaped bucket bite. It needs to be a whisper of the oratory to follow. Think of it as a Jeopardy-style giving of the answer to the question your story answers before the question is asked.

Consider a story by Donald Barthelme called Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby. Barthelme took this title straight from the first nine words of the story. This method is unique (and, I’ll point out, entirely more appropriate and satisfying than naming the story Colby—don’t name your story after the primary character. Just don’t). It immediately sets tone. Can you feel how the language is constructed to communicate nonchalance and a general disposition to think lightly? There’s an audible shrug in this title that can’t be ignored—a stroke of brilliance

It’s eternally important to remember that titles are not trifles. You’re not labeling a filing cabinet. Don’t just tell us what’s in this story, declare your confidence in your writing and tell us what is the story, but through subtlety and cleverness.

My last blog was about the importance of first lines. Well, a title is the line before the first line. It introduces your story and gives it character before it has characters. It gives voice before a voice is heard, establishes tone before its established, because, sayeth Dickens, it is the keynote. It’s the precursor to everything your work contains.

It’s nearly impossible to teach titling, so I’m not trying to do that. What I’d rather do is showcase some things that good titles are comprised of and a thing or two to keep in mind while trying to do it. Whatever you choose as your title, there’s a single thing that will always leave you with a more satisfying moniker than merely slapping the primary image or theme as a header.

Always enter into character as you write your title. Never write your title as you-the-author—write it in the voice and tone that your story carries throughout. It is your responsibility to enter into character in the title of the piece, to immediately declare your intentions to the reader. Never approach your title as an objective observer. Always have tonal and character-charged biases that shape your perception of the label. How you construct your title will either bless your story with a permanently memorable calling card, or condemn it to be instantly forgettable. Do you really want your story to be remembered as “that one story with the eccentric homeless guy apparently dressing himself with things he finds out of dumpsters in preparation for a party who’s also planning to steal away the woman of his dreams there” or Fresh or Also, Not? If for nobody else’s sake, do it in the name of brevity.

Nathan Norton serves as intern to the Third Coast fiction editors.


Nick Fed said...

Good words, dude.
That's what writing is, right? Controlling as many elements as possible to convey a particular aspect to the reader...or at least create a certain sandbox for them to wander in? Title choice is yet another element it seems we must not ignore.
Now you're inspiring me to step my creative game up.
P.S. "Deeeeeeep coat."

Sandra Laine said...

Great article. Certainly will make me think twice about the tile of my next story. I really like that idea for a story at the end. You should run with that.