When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.
Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.
“The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”
No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.
But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.
I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.
At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.
I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:
Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou
Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe
Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi
A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams
No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy
Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb
Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins
Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda
Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler
Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park
Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain
Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin
Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt
The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers
Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman
Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!