by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2004 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Did you ever wonder why Herman Melville called his most famous book Moby Dick? After all, it was the diary of a fishing captain, the story of the one that got away to beat all such stories, and the whale itself barely gets more than a cameo appearance, with just about everything about it learned from Captain Ahab's ranting. So why title the book Moby Dick? In fact, what's the secret to creating the perfect title anyway?
I'm glad you asked. Trying to answer that question is more fun than talking about a big white whale anyway. The obvious answer is that the title should encompass and describe the story in a few words. The actual number of words doesn't matter, but usually the less the better. Similarly, it is more important to catch the reader's eye than to fully describe the narrative, although some would prefer that the title makes complete sense by time you reach the end of the tale. For example, some of the B and C sci-fi/horror movies from the fifties and sixties went completely minimalist, using a single word (I won't count 'The'). To see if it worked, I offer the following quick quiz. How many of you can remember the major plot of each of the following movies:
Now, how many of you remember the major plot of each of the following movies with multiword titles:
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds
The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman
What Did You Do in the War Daddy?
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Cheech and Chong's Next Movie
Click on each title for the answer from the Internet Movie Database.
Let me know how you did; you can send me a message by clicking either on my name at the top of the page, or else here. I'll bet the longer names were a bit more informative, especially if you didn't already have a good idea of what the movie was about, but I'm also guessing that you did well with some of the more popular movies with short names. This is actually a feature of publicity. The odds are that 2001 and The Blob are more well known than Cheech and Chong's Next Movie.
Some titles are references to major characters in their stories; if Melville had done this, Moby Dick might have been called The Captain's Diary. Example from the archives of TSAT include The Curse of the Teenaged Gypsy Werewolf, by Andy Hollis, or The Case of the Poisoned Lord, by Luke Allen and me. As a word of advice, a bit of mystery is a good feature in a title.
Some stories are titled after a key word or phrase; had Melville gone this route, Moby Dick might have been named after what is probably the most famous line in the book, Call me Ishmael. Even the Clearest Glass Distorts, by Sideshow Lew, is an example from TSAT.
Another source of story titles can be events that occur in the story. In that case, Citizen Kane might have been titled Rosebud, and 2001 might have been called The Monolith. An example from TSAT would be Oops!, by Wolphin. Note that the title doesn't need to describe the event in detail, just make the reader curious.
Another way to pique the reader's curiosity: Use a title that, while it doesn't necessarily have to make sense, nevertheless provides a feeling or flavor of the story. Under this theory, Moby Dick might have been called Megawhale. In TSAT, good examples of this are Never Play with Your Head, by Draven Darklight, and Myomancy, by Sideshow Lew, among others. Do you have any idea what 'myomancy' is? Do you want to know? Guess what you need to do to find out? That's right, read the story.
Nowadays, given that the average reader takes less than five seconds to look at a story title, an image if there is one, and/or a brief blurb about the story, I can't stress how important it is to have a catchy, interesting title. Of course, exactly what is a catchy and/or interesting title is the one secret that no one will tell you -- not even me -- mostly because no one really knows.
As a final note, some writers use the title as a way to 'jump start' a story, to start them writing and aim them in the direction they want to go. I tend to use chapter headings in the same manner.