My rules about fiction titles

by look i have opinions

  • Subtle or obscure titles are hard to remember and accept, especially when the story is short or simple. A lengthy or complex work of fiction demands a lot of the reader’s time and attention, so a subtle title has a chance to sink in gradually. (This is a problem for movies based on books: the book has a chance to “earn” its title, but the movie must be brief and relatively shallow.)
  • Titles should not try to mean too much. Trying to cram explicit emotion into a title, let alone wisdom, usually comes off as mawkish. Again, this is especially true for short, simple works.
  • An inappropriate allusion can ruin an otherwise acceptable title.
  • A title that literally summarizes the story almost always reads as redundant. In very short fiction, redundant titles are rampant and they stick out. (See for example a lot of the otherwise excellent finalists in Robert Swartwood’s latest Hint Fiction Contest.) A titleless poem can avoid the problem by using its opening line as a de facto title, but that convention has never caught on in fiction.
  • A title named after the protagonist (or antagonist, or MacGuffin) is a safe choice. The only danger is that it will be too bland—and again, this danger is greatest with very short works.
  • Cute, punny, or self-consciously clever titles are annoying.
  • Titles that use clichés or stock phrases, without giving them any kind of twist, come off as clumsy and amateurish. Same with titles that use vague, trite imagery.
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