Judging a Story by Its Title

I confess that I frequently judge books by their titles. In some cases, this kind of snap decision works every time. Like, if the paperback features a woman wearing a hoop skirt with a plunging neckline pressed up next to a man wearing a white blouse with a sword at his side, I know I’m going to love it! Just kidding. It means I know I will not be reading The Pirate’s Bride, because that book falls into the bodice-ripper genre and I haven’t read any romances since I stumbled on a collection of them as a kid during a vacation at my aunt’s house. Those paperbacks pretty much ruined my expectations for how sex would unfold, though they did improve my vocabulary so that I was able to spell and define the word “tumescence” should anyone ask. But that’s a tale for another day.

Similarly, I find that when I’m reading stories submitted for publication to Philadelphia Stories I often have a quick reaction based solely on the title of a story. This does not mean that I don’t read the whole thing, only that I am put on guard when the title is “The Day I Died.” (Side note: please do not kill off your main character in a short story, particularly if you’re telling a first-person narrative. Don’t make me ponder how the story got told by a dead guy.)

Good titles are difficult to create, but the title of your piece is the first thing an editor sees when she’s looking at your work, and therefore a bad title can set your story on the path toward rejection. Bad titles make the reader suspicious that the writer doesn’t know what he is doing. For example, any title that seems completely obvious, like “Returning Home,” or melodramatic, like “Feelings of Sadness,” or too weird, as in “Sebastian and the Ginkledork Cherry Blossom Pie Aliens,” has me on the defensive before I even read the first sentence, “Today was the day that Sebastian felt the saddest even though he was on his way back home.”

When in doubt, keep the title simple. Lorrie Moore, in her latest collection of short fiction (Bark: Stories), has stories called “Bark,” “Foes,” and “The Juniper Tree.” Those are straightforward nouns that don’t confuse or give too much away. Stories in some of Moore’s other collections have titles such as “Thank You for Having Me,” “You’re Ugly, Too,” and “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” The common thread among these examples is that they turn out to have more than one interpretation. In this way, the best titles do the same thing that good stories do. They have both a surface meaning and a deeper one. For example, the title of Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “A Temporary Matter” refers to the fact that the electricity in a house will be cut off for a short time and also reflects the state of the marriage the story explores. Often, a reader will fully appreciate a story’s title only after reading the entire piece. And a really good title will connect with the ending in a way that feels justified but isn’t easily anticipated.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a title, try going back into the story and looking for key words or phrases that you like and see if they can hold the weight of the story. The title doesn’t have to do all of the work—it doesn’t have to explain the whole story, nor should it—but it does need to be well thought out. You have so few words in a short story—make the title count.

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