Sunday, August 20, 2017

Insert Title Here (Please!)

by Julie Tollefson

I’m putting the finishing touches on a short story this week, and I’ve run into a huge problem: The title.

Specifically, I haven’t been able to think of one and the deadline is imminent.

There’s so much pressure on those few words. A title has to hook readers and give a hint of the flavor of the story. I sometimes think I expect so much more from the five or ten words in a title than I do from all 3,500 in a story. It’s scary.

Three decades ago, as a copyeditor for a daily newspaper, I wrote headlines every day. I never felt the kind of pressure for them that I feel for story titles, but I suspect my headlines were more utilitarian than witty. I have a friend, a fellow editor, who is adept at wordplay in headlines. She writes compelling serious headlines when the situation warrants but is quick with a pun when the opportunity arises. Maybe I should recruit her to write my story titles for me.

In an effort to kick-start the title brainstorming process, I re-read the story several times and highlighted meaningful words and phrases. Prairie. Cactus. Sand. Heat. Science. I’ve used them alone and in combination. I’ve twisted myself in knots trying to strike just the right tone. 


Among other titles I’ve tried and discarded:

“What Lurks Beneath”—Sounds familiar and stale, but more importantly nothing in the story really lurks.

“Cherry Vodka Kisses”—It’s a mystery, not a teen romance.

“Past and Present”—Not bad, if I were writing a D- quality high school essay.

“Erasure”—Um, that reads like thriller or sci fi to me.

So tell me, what’s the secret to finding the perfect title? The clock is ticking.


  1. Julie -- good luck. When it comes to short stories, I consider myself title-challenged. I've had no problem for the last two novels (and the two that are WIPs), but I consider that more a fluke than wisdom.

    ~ Jim

  2. Isn't that interesting, Jim? I haven't had any problems with titles for my novel-length stories either. In fact, for the first manuscript I wrote, I had the title before anything else.

  3. Julie, you've got a good thing going with vultures. Go for it!

  4. Titles are a moveable feast for me. I either have a ton of them or none of them. Even when I find what I consider the perfect title, the editor changes it. Go figure!

    I like alliteration in titles, but I try to stay away from puns. Other authors love puns (and they're good at them too). It will come to you, Julie, or not. If not, go with your gut and rely on the editor -- who always get the last word.

  5. Julie, without reading the story, I have no idea what to use as a title for your short story. Have you had your husband or friends read it to come up with ideas? Probably, all of
    a sudden the title will just pop into your head.

  6. Thanks, everyone! It would be cool if I could wave a magic wand and the perfect title would appear. :)

  7. crazy idea: re-read the story, on each page pick one or two three-word phrase(s) YOU especially, like, something that seems to "flow", strikes a chord for YOU. (YKWIM, when you write anything more than a long sentence there is *always* a turn of phrase SOMEwhere in it that esthetically pleases you.

    You're likely to find at least two out of them all that, surprise, surprise, would probably work well as titles! And VERY many titles these days seem to be three words... -sigh-

    (Hey, it's that, or there's always darts...)

  8. Abbey - Great idea - thanks! I'm always amazed at authors who do that well. Sara Henry's "A COLD AND LONELY PLACE" is one that comes to mind. I remember reading the phrase in the book and thinking "yes, she chose exactly the right bit of narrative to use as the title."

  9. Coming up with a good title can be so hard and many titles can be so misleading. I've heard authors bemoan the fact that their publisher changed their title to something they totally disliked. If you self-publish, you have more control.

  10. Sometimes titles appear out of the blue and demand a story be written around them; sometimes I realize the working title does, in fact, work; sometimes a title appears in a moment of inspiration. And sometimes I just have to go with the best one I can come up with out of a lame bunch.