What Makes a Good Title
Titles are often skipped over by writers, even by the otherwise skilled and successful. One of the most common tendencies, and a pet hate of mine, is to have a two word title in which the first word is ‘the’. In horror, I think the intended affect is to create a sense of ominous foreboding – for example, a haunted house story titled ‘The House.’ Others might be ‘The Doll’, ‘The Haunting’, ‘The Dead’. I hesitate to criticise Adam Nevill’s latest book, which I loved, but I can’t help but feel that ‘The Reddening’ is not the best title. One of the problems with this habit is that pretty soon everything you do is titled ‘The…’ And your bibliography starts to look like a damn shopping list.
To combat this, when I first started writing short stories I would simply omit the ‘The’. But looking back, the results weren’t much better: ‘Monster’, ‘Other’, ‘Demon’ were a few of my less imaginative ones. I improved slightly by adding a second word, but still ended up with boring titles like: ‘Quiet Night’, ‘Room for Thought’, and ‘Little Bites’. Still, I would argue, better than: ‘The Quiet Night’ etc.
My next stroke of genius was to say: hey, if adding one word slightly improved it, what if I added even more words?. I noticed that some of my favourite titles had a lot of words in them. The afore mentioned Adam Nevill had a short story collection (also amazing, by the way) titled ‘Some Will Not Sleep’. Using more words, I figured, forced one to be more creative, and offered more chances for interesting combinations and sentence structures.
Using this method, my titles improved again, and my most recent stories have the best titles to date, in my opinion: ‘Screams for Stargirl,’ is one I’m proud of, as is the feature story of my upcoming collection: ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths’.
As much as I like those, I think there is still something lacking. I mean, a story’s title should be more than just an interesting collection of words that sounds cool and is related to the content, right? The ideal title, in my mind, as well as being all those things, should also relate directly to the central theme of the story. The best example of this that I’ve come across is one of the greatest horror/thriller stories ever written, even though it regrettably begins with the word ‘The’ (exceptions to every rule, never forget): The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is it an interesting and cool sounding title, but it directly relates to the internal struggle of the book’s protagonist, Clarice Starling, and her desire to silence the screaming lambs of her childhood.
And that brings me to the other quality I think a good title should have: it should read differently before versus after you’ve actually read the story. Stephen King once said that a good book is such that you should be able to read it at least twice and get something different from it each time. A title should follow that directive, too. The Silence of the Lambs is a good title before you read it, but it is an even better title afterward, for different reasons.
But before you start getting the idea that there is a sliding scale from ‘bad title’ to ‘good title’ like the one I’ve outlined, let me draw your attention to the book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’.
It would be a mistake to give that book a more ‘sophisticated’ title. Like, imagine if it was called: ‘Field of the Painted Face’ or something similar. It sounds kinda creepy, sure. More ominous. But the actual book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ is about (guess) a fucking clown killing some people in a cornfield – it’s not pretending to be some kind of ‘high’ literary fiction, so there’s no point misleading anyone. You read that title and you know you’re in for a fun ride (and you are).
You need to consider what message you send with the title. Not only does the ideal title convey the central theme of the story, but it also indicates the genre in more subtle ways than you would guess. ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ indicates horror clearly enough, but it also indicates a certain kind of horror. It indicates a kind of light-hearted, dark-humoured horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Ultimately, the information coded into the title of your work amounts to this: The genre, the style, the seriousness or lack thereof, the atmosphere, the underlying theme, and the voice of the author.