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Find the right title for your story

We had a great Write Your Life Story – The Basics workshop on Saturday where thirteen enthusiastic writers learned about organizing their work, generating story ideas, blocking out a story, revising, proofreading and much, much more.  

One thing we touched on was how to come up with a good title for your story. Today, let’s take a better look at that process. 

When I begin writing a story, I just slap something on the top of it as a title, and that’s okay. We call that a working title. It’s important to give a work in progress a name. Sometimes, the first name we give it sticks, but most times, we come up with a better title by the end of the writing process. 

First, what should a good title do?

  •   Grab the reader’s attention
  •   Create curiosity in the reader as to what the story is about
  •   Make a good first impression (Remember, these are the first words someone reads.)
  •   Tell something but not too much about the story
  •   Reflect the nature and tone of the story
  •   Get the reader to read the first paragraph
  •   Represent the heart and soul of your story 

What should a title not do?

  •   Trick your reader into thinking the story is about something it’s not
  •   Promise something in the title that your story doesn’t deliver
  •   Be too cute or clever with plays on words or puns unless you’re really good at it
  •   Give away the punch line of your story 

Let’s look at some different ways to generate a good title and make the process interesting at the same time. Think of a story you’ve already completed, and for each method suggested, write a possible title for your story. 

First, reread your story, so you’ll have its contents clear in your mind. Take a minute and write two or three sentences that describe the subject of your story. With that done, use these approaches to come up with a great story title. I’ve provided titles of books as examples. Does that sound good?

  •   Use the main character’s name – Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
  •   Make the name possessive – Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  •   Highlight an event or activity – A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  •   Use a memorable line from the story – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  •   Use the name of a place – Dakota by Kathleen Norris, Regina’s Closet by Diana Raab – doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical place
  •   Feature the theme of your story – Sorry Dad by Edward Blishen (English author and conscientious objector in WWII whose  father fought in WWI)
  •   Take a line from an established work, e.g. Bible, famous book – All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott
  •   Add ing to an important action in the story – Growing Up by Russell Baker,  Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  •   Answer a question in the story – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelo
  •   Feature a vivid image from the story – The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  •   Identify key words—verbs, nouns, adjectives—that describe your story Lit by Mary Karr                  
  •   Use a line of dialogue – Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life with My Musical Family by Lawrence Welk
  •   Use the theme—a unifying or dominant idea—of the story – Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert 

Here are a few parting tips on how to write a good title:

  •   Keep it short – four or five words, max – two or three-word titles are even better – you have three seconds to capture the reader’s attention      
  •   Don’t write a title that is too general – it’s usually boring, e.g. The Sea
  •   Put primary key word first, if possible
  •   Use active verbs, present tense
  •   Don’t begin the title with the – it’s usually not needed 

So, how did you do? Did you come up with anything you liked? I bet you did. Share a few of your best attempts here, and let’s talk about them.

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