Even though the title of your Writing Challenge entry is not judged, it is the first thing that your readers see, and many readers will be drawn to your entry by a well-chosen title. And a great title may leave a subliminal good first impression with judges; they may start reading your piece with a happy feeling about it before they’ve even read one sentence.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for choosing a good title. While there are always exceptions, keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Do not, under any circumstances, use the topic as your title. That may go without saying…but by extension:
2. Don’t use any well-known expression, Bible verse, television or movie title, book title, song title, or any other phrase that contains the topic (or any form of the topic word). There are several reasons for this rule: you want to avoid the dreaded Roman numerals next to your title (they appear when you’ve chosen the same title as someone else), you want to avoid any preconceived notions that are already associated with a well-known phrase or title, and you definitely don’t want to mess with someone else’s copyrighted title. Finally—you’re a writer. Don’t you want your title to be original to your work?
3. Don’t give away the ending of your story with your title. This is especially true if there’s a twist or a surprise in the ending. I remember a story from several quarters ago…it was a clever little first person story, and as it was read, the reader was led to the gradual realization that it was being narrated by…a snowman! Clever, right? Unfortunately, the title was “The Snowman”.
It’s tempting to use a word or phrase from the end as your title, because lots of times that’s where the ‘punch’ is. Resist it.
4. Be sure that the mood of the title matches the mood of the story. If your story is serious, don’t give it a cutsie title with rhyming words, alliteration, or puns. If your story is lighthearted, don’t give it a ponderous title with words of several syllables.
5. Avoid titles beginning with “The”. Often the title can be strengthened by just chopping off the “The”. Instead of “The Pillow Fight”, try just “Pillow Fight”. Instead of “The Leper”, just “Leper”.
6. A good title should have at least one really strong, interesting word in it. One of the teachers in my school calls these ‘salsa’ words, while boring words are ‘rice cake’ words. I took a look through the titles in several recent challenges, and I found these salsa words: rigmarole, satin, camels, wrinkles, doggoned, outrageous, superwoman, safari, puddle, unquenched, Baboo. On the other hand, I also found these rice cake words: relationship, walk, call, destination, now, say, loss, beginning, good.
7. I think people are drawn to one-word titles (if it’s a salsa word), OR very long titles, OR titles that contain a person’s name (especially if the name is an interesting one). Here are three of each type from recent entries:
Where are Ravens When You Need Them?
Wait a Minute While I Put My Other Foot in My Mouth
Of Course Your Mom Went to Prom
Jippy Jones Goes Missing
Mrs. Chilsome Chills Out
Pastor Joe Meets Miss Imogene Dumple
8. This is just a theory, but I think people are also attracted to titles that contain punctuation, especially in conjunction with salsa words:
Whenever I See that Scar…
Castles, Dungeons, and Other Deadly Things
I Call You Mother: I Call Him Lord
Note: Titles never end with periods, even if they happen to be complete sentences. And while I’m on the subject of writing titles correctly—please capitalize key words. If you’re in doubt about which words are ‘key’ words, you can’t go wrong if you capitalize every word. TYPING A TITLE IN ALL CAPS IS JUST PLAIN ANNOYING.
I usually write my title last, and sometimes I agonize over it. If I’m really lucky, there’s a great little phrase somewhere in the piece that would make a good title. I look for key words and names of characters, and I try to think of action phrases that capture the story (without giving too much away). And then I continue to agonize, sometimes for days.
Homework: Give us your 3 favorite challenge titles, and tell why you like them. OR mention 3 book titles that you really like. OR tell us how you choose your titles, or what you try to avoid. OR just respond to something in this lesson.
And…that’s all, folks! I had three more topics in my alphabetical list, but ‘theme’ doesn’t really apply to ultra-short stories, and ‘vernacular’ was pretty thoroughly covered in ‘dialect’ and ‘dialogue’. In my next class, I hope to cover 'voice' in several different ways.
I’ve been given several ideas about what to cover in my next class, and I’m still mulling them over. I welcome more input—what would you like to see covered?
The next class won’t start until September, at any rate…I’m finishing up this school year, retiring, and taking the summer off to vacation with family, entertain out-of-town friends, prepare for my talks at the FW Conference, and welcome my new grandbaby into the world.
This has been tremendous fun, and I’d like to sincerely thank all of you who have participated, whether little or much. It’s truly been a co-operative effort, and I’ve received far more than I’ve given.
(Anyone who may stumble onto this late--please know that the entire series is available as a Word file. Send me a PM with your e-mail address, and I'll get it off to you right away.)