Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Titles Are Shadows

By Lazette Gifford
2003, Lazette Gifford

inding the right title for a piece can be frustrating, especially for writers who suddenly come to a crashing halt over what is often less than a half dozen words. That title is the first line that a reader sees -- whether in print, or on an editor's desk -- and it shapes perceptions.  Titling a short story properly can be difficult enough, but a novelist can have the double annoyance of finally finding the 'right' title, only to have the publisher decide to change it.  Novelists shouldn't get too attached to their titles, but they can't ignore them, either.

Titles can set the mood of the piece, and can even help the author keep sight of the mood she wants.  I don't always title pieces right away, but if one comes to me early in the work, it generally means it's a good title.  At other times, titles just elude me.

Sometimes a person works too hard to find something flowery, poetic, and catchy, even when it doesn't exactly fit the story.  I spent days trying to find the right catchy phrase for a story about a woman who was offered a chance to get out of prison if she helped work on a new space station.  Nothing I came up with suited the story.  And then, on a reread, I realized that an echoing thread had people telling her how lucky she was.  The story title became Lucky and turned out to be a perfect fit, allowing me to create an ending scene that tied perfectly into the theme.  Lucky sold to Ideomancer, and is still available there.

The lesson here is that sometimes you can try too hard to find a fancy title, when something far simpler works better.  Look at key words, names, or places and see if one of them can be used. 

However, there are stories where something more is needed, like the story about a prince about to inherit a kingdom, his fear that his young wife will leave him (like his mother abandoned her husband and two sons), and the strands of hair he takes to his brother the mage to weave a love spell through a portrait.  The story is Weaving the Strands of Love.

If a title does not just come to me right away there are a couple tricks that I try. The first is to look at the main character's name and see if the story can be titled in that way:  Melina; Melina's Story; Melina's Tale; Walking with Melina, etc.

If that doesn't work, I start looking for a theme.  Is the story about war and death?  I pull out my trusty hardbound copy of Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett (ISBN 0-316-08275-9), better known as Barlett's Familiar Quotations.  In the back is an index of key words. War and death both have long sections, so I start with war.  The index not only lists pages on which the word war can be found, but it gives a little snippet of the quote, which can help save a lot of time.  I generally look for something older (which means lower page number -- the quotes in the book are done by year).

And the first snippet immediately catches my attention -- 'a god has given deeds of war, 58:17'.  Deeds of War might work very well.  Out of curiosity I check out the reference anyway.  It's familiar...

Ah, of course.  Homer's Illiad:

You will certainly not be able to take the lead in all things yourself, for to one man a god has given deeds of war, and to another the dance, to another the lyre and song, and in another wide-sounding Zeus puts a good mind. (Homer, Illiad, l. 729)

But maybe death is more important to the story.  So, I check the listing for death. The first two don't appeal to me, but then I see 'absence, darkness, death, 253:1.'

Absence, Darkness, Death looks like another good title.  I go take a look:

He ruined me and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.
(Donne, A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, being the shortest day)

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is a great resource for writers.  Often just scanning the index gives me an idea for an original title, and I don't even look up the quotes.  For those of you who like an on-line version, try, ( which has far more than just Bartlett's book available.  I prefer my hardbound in this case, though.  Browsing through the index alone has inspired a number of titles.

Here's something else to consider: short stories can usually have longer titles than novels.  I suspect that's because the amount of space on the spine of a novel is limited, and two words can be larger than five, and therefore easier to read.  Or it may be that you need a shorter title for people to remember and spread the word.  For whatever reasons, you're more likely to find a book titled Melina's Tale rather than Melina and the Greater Glory of the Goddess, which would make a decent short story title.

Titling a short piece about a man who cast runes before the 1066 invasion of England quickly became A Fate Cast in Stones.  A young adult mystery novel about a teen sent to a foster home in a small town became The Good People of Coralville.  I've had shorter titles that work just as well:  Silky, Unlikely Companions, Weber's Site, and Niche (which had been Chasing Martian Mice -- not a good title at all).

When I considered the title for a humorous short story that included a were-bunny as well as an ice skating camel, I came up with Would That It Were almost immediately.  However, a novel that includes Appalachian elements, along with Cherokee and Egyptian mythology went from The First Open Door to Doors to Glory and might go through more changes. 

Sometimes you will just never come up with the title you want.  Don't let that stop you from writing the story.  I've seen some people say they can't write a story screaming in their heads because they don't have the 'name' yet.  Give it a name.  When it's older and more mature, it might file for a name change, but don't let the lack of a title hold you back from telling the story.

And don't let the fact that you haven't found a good title keep you from sending the piece out.  In one instance, I could not come up with a title for a short story.  I kept changing it, including a change just before I sent it off to an ezine.  I later got a note saying I had sold The War Between.  I had no idea what they where talking about until I went back through my emails and found a copy of what I sent.  This was even more amusing by the fact that the sale notice came on a private email, and I didn't see the ezine's name (which was down a few lines from the signature) until I read the note a second time.  I had sold a story I didn't recognize, and I didn't even know to where...

And what about the title to this piece?  I played with Bartlett's Familiar Quotations again, looking up 'title':

When kings the sword of justice first lay down

They are not kings, though they posses the crown

Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things

The good of subjects is the end of kings 

(Daniel Defoe, The True-Born Englishman, l. 313)

Yes, the quote is about a different type of title, but the words fit.  In the end, that's all you need to worry about.