The Function of a Title

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Medium, Jun 28, 2015 READ

Every story you’ve ever read has probably had a title. Be it a short story, a novel, a novella, novelette, or paragraph of flash fiction (even this little article has a title).

Titles serve two primary purposes…

The first purpose of a title is identification. If a story had no title, it would be hard to remember (without your brain regurgitating most of its plot), and difficult to refer to when talking about it with anyone…

YOU: “Hey, Bob? What are you reading?”
BOB: “A book about a man who falls in love with a woman.”
Long pause.
YOU: “Yeah, I think I may have read that one.”

The second purpose of a title is to characterize the story. The title is your first clue to a story’s flavor; and after you’ve read it, an easy shortcut to remembering it. It is, to use a marketing term, its first point of difference.

As such, a title should ideally be unique. Imagine if books simply took their ISBN for their titles…

YOU: “Hey, Bob. Have you read 9780451119674, 9780316769488, or 9780747560722?”
BOB: “…dafuq?”

You may as well be having a conversation about computer punch cards, because it’s unlikely you and Bob will be discussing The Shining, Catcher in the Rye, or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

A story’s title is invented by the story’s author. It’s part of the creative process, and can range from the simple (it does what it says on the tin): Jaws; to the complex: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that most authors spend a vast amount of time on formulating their titles. A story is an author’s “baby”, and you don’t name your kid after the first random thought that enters your head.

Most authors like their titles to reflect one of their story’s major themes or central conceits: On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gone Girl.

Or to evoke the atmosphere/mood of their story: Wuthering Heights, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Names are popular, too: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter

And so too is the odd and the unusual: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, The Baby Jesus Butt Plug.

Above all, an author wants his/her title to be memorable.

It’s also true that most titles make more sense after you’ve read the story. For instance: Catch-22 is not the 22nd sequel to Catcher in the Rye. It’s not even about baseball, or an allusion to baseball (or even grain). And Joseph Heller, its author, originally called the book “Catch-18”, and then later, “Catch-11”. The number is arbitrary. And if you’ve never heard the expression “a catch-22 situation” (which was derived from the book), you’ll have no idea at all what the book is about (it’s a black comedy/satire/anti-war novel).

Here are the original titles to some of the classics of literature:

  • First Impressions → Pride and Prejudice
  • All’s Well that Ends Well → War and Peace
  • The Second Murderer → Farewell My Lovely
  • The Last Man in Europe → 1984
  • The Dead Un-Dead → Dracula
  • The War of the Ring → The Lord of the Rings
  • The Jaws of the Leviathan → Jaws

Disclaimer: I am a writer of stories who has spent way too long deliberating over titles. Back around 2006, I wrote a novelette, which I titled “Parts of the Whole”. The title made perfect sense, thematically, when you knew the story, and I had thought it was a good choice. I sent the story out to a couple of magazines, and it didn’t sell. It took me about two years to realize it wasn’t an interesting title, by any stretch of the imagination. It was boring. I then re-titled the novelette: The Man with One Eye, and it sold to the first magazine I sent it to.

Are titles important? You bet!