Finding the correct title for a story is often one of the most difficult aspects of writing. Sometimes the title comes easily. Often, however, I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the correct phrase or line that truly encompasses all the themes and ideas of a particular piece. This is hard work. There is so much investment in finding the right title that I often feel I am falling short. Instead, I end up with a long list of very bad titles.
Some my favorite short story titles come from the text itself. Titles such as these come from a particularly poetic or apt phrase, often repeated throughout the text or found at a key moment. It is harder than one might imagine to find this key phrase and recognize its potential. Still, if it is there, the phrase can often jump off the page, quickly becoming apparent.
The problem comes when the perfect phrase is not evident in the story. Then, one needs to spend time thinking about what the story really means and how best to capture these ideas in one line. Sometimes this sort of mental work is necessary. It can lead to important breakthroughs, clearing up confusion within the piece itself. It can also help one rework a certain scene. Still, sometimes the correct title for the piece just isn’t there.
The novel I am currently working on is still untitled. I have a list of at least ten possibilities, all of which are related to themes and events within the story and the protagonist’s name. Somehow none of the combinations seem to work. Although I am sure I will find the correct title for this novel eventually, this process is a continually trying one for me. I have spoken to some of my poet friends, who must, of course, write titles for their pieces constantly. Perhaps this process is easier for the poet, as their main focus is the line. The correct title is essential to a poem and can make or break the piece. Although I might one day find inspiration from these poets, usually I am just grateful not to be one of them.
I often think about some of the world’s most famous writers and their titles: A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, Waiting for Godot. I wonder if these works would have been just as successful if they had been given another name. For example, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins was originally titled The Hotel Adequate View, which just doesn’t encompass the strength the piece, as it is a large and sweeping novel.
Still, some of the best titles are simple ones. Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility, for example, are not very detailed or complicated in nature. Yet, perhaps a simple title will often do.
I expect most writers struggle with titles from time to time, and a good friend or fellow writer can often advise against bad choices. Sometimes the best solution, I think, is to just pick a title and move on with the work. Even if the future holds a better title, at least, good writing can carry the piece until then.