Titles (again)

I had an illuminating conversation with a teacher of Creative Writing this weekend.

He thinks that the model most writers use when choosing a short story title is that of the popular song. And I think he's onto something. Looking back over the stories I've been reading for various places in the past few months, I suspect that there is a tendency to follow that route, which would explain the preponderance of stories that have a woman's name as their title.

The problems with this approach are (a) if we can't remember a song title we tend to run through the lyrics in our head until we reach the relevant ones - which doesn't work for a short story and (b) with a few notable exceptions, the material contained in a song doesn't have the complexity or subtlety of even the shortest short story, so where the reader looks to the author for a key, or maybe just a clue, to the story's meaning, using a given name doesn't suffice.

Compare 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' with 'Christopher John Francis Boone'. The former conveys the sense that this will be a mystery story, contains an allusion to Sherlock Holmes and generally sets us up for what will follow. The latter, being the name of the protagonist, does nothing. When it comes to novels, titles get much debate between authors, agents, publishing houses etc, but for short stories we tend to be on our own.

A good exercise is to come up with eight or twelve potential titles - often just the process of making yourself think about it is enough to produce more evocative or provocative words than grabbing a 'does what it says on the tin' title out of thin air and never reflecting on it again. I set my students an exercise where I give them a one sentence precis of a short story and invite them to come up with titles - hearing other people's ideas kick-starts their own creativity and titling a story that they haven't written themselves frees them up to be imaginative rather than descriptive.