The Title Terror

It seems that the shorter the work, the harder it is. Sure, a novel takes longer to write, and requires a good deal of perseverance, but writing a captivating novel is easier than writing a captivating short story as the volume of the former will allow for some mistakes to be excused. Then, writing a short story seems easier than writing a synopsis, and synopsis can be much easier than a pitch in for the query letter. This makes coming up with titles the most challenging part of writing… Well, at least it does for me.

I was never good with titles, and I don’t even pretend too hard I am. Most of the times, I either have something “good enough” before I even start writing, or my brain has a tantrum called “I can think of anything”.
Sometimes titles present themselves along with a vague idea for the story, like it was in the case of Mr. Roache’s Drummer (Polish: Bębniarz Pana Roache) – one my favorite short stories I’ve written years ago and re-written recently. All I head was the idea for the “drummers” (I won’t spoil by saying what they are) and the title, and the story of life, death, and one old man stuck with one because he tried to run from the others seemed to weave itself.

Other times, simple titles work. Sanne and Wood (Polish: Sanne i drewno) might not be a brilliant title, but it fits well a very quiet story of one wood carver obsessed with her art, devoted to it, and finding in it everything she needs. The same seemed work for my other short story, Butterfly (Polish: Motyl) about genetically modified people who live only one day. Nowadays I might have title it A Butterfly’s One Day or Tomorrow I Die, but I feel the simple title this story has still works well.

It’s not much easier when it comes to titling novels. The fantasy I’ve been working on for the past two years had its working title as “By His Will”, but as one of my beta-readers pointed out, it was quite vague and unclear. I could have gone with something very generic like The Arcanist’s Pact, and probably would have if not Inq’s help. The novel is now called By the Pact—not only after the exclamation (similar to “Oh, My God!”) that the main character uses often, but because the pact she has with a demon is an important part of what drives the plot.

Sadly, most of my projects are not lucky enough to get a nice-sounding title. Several are stuck with painfully generic title, others don’t even have that luxury with their typical placeholder name. One of them would be a sci-fi romance tucked safely in the file called SpaceR… And it’s not for the lack of trying to find a fitting title!

Recently, I suffered from the title terror again. I finished a fun sword and sorcery short story, set in the same world as my novel By the Pact, and since it’s one of those undemanding, entertaining reads, I couldn’t come up with any good title for it. Desperation sometimes brings jest and joking, and I decided that I should search inspiration among the more successful titles. So, I took some of the movies’ and books’ ones and adapted them for my story. And while the titles reflect my story, the story itself has nothing to do with what happened in the actual movies or books.

It didn’t solve my title woes, but provided me a lot of entertainment. Here’s what I came up with—I challenge you to try to figure out the original book and movie titles (and I promise to give the right answers at the end of this post):

  • A Worshipper Too Far
  • When the High Mage Met the Arcanist
  • A High Mage’s Guide to Demons and Arcane Magic
  • Where the Demon Things Are
  • From Kaighal With Love
  • Kamira Altrainne and the Temple of Kankate

Of course, none of them could serve as the actual title, so after two weeks of mulling over the problem, I turned to Inq. Fifteen minutes of brainstorming, and I had a title for my story that seemed to fit perfectly: Scourges, Spells, and Serenades.

As you can imagine, I have a bit of a title-creating-envy.

Thankfully, the newest short story I’ve been working on, is one of those “the title came with the idea” instances, so I can write Black Eyes, Luminous Monsters without the dark shadow of the untitled file over me.
How about you? Do you come up with the titles easily or struggle? Or, like in my case, it depends on the story?

Since I promised you the actual titles, here they go: A Bridge Too Far, When Harry Met Sally, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Where the Wild Things Are, From Russia With Love (From Paris With Love works too!), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though any Harry Potter could could as well).

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. J.R.Bee

    I don’t know, I still like “Where the Demon Things Are” 😀
    I usually find it easy to find a title, but I do have some tales that just won’t be named, my current wip for example, I’ve been working on it off an on for a few years, it’s taken on various titles, most of them “Dragon Fantasy” as the temporary titles lost their appeal. I have now settled on a title, but even that may change in time.

    1. melfka

      Me too, but I couldn’t use it as a title for my story.

      1. J.R.Bee

        You could, but probably only if the story were a parody of the original 😀

  2. sjhigbee

    Oh I feel your pain! I can normally come up with reasonably okay titles for my novels – but short stories… oh dear, oh dear. Great article, Joanna!

    1. melfka

      I somewhat envy composers. They could just title their work something like “Opus No. 37” and nobody complained. 😉

      1. sjhigbee

        Yes! Although I think that was in the good old days – album titles these days have to be a bit punchier than that, I think…

  3. debscarey

    I love the idea of brainstorming with movie titles – I do the same with songs (both titles and lyrics).

    1. melfka

      Thank you! Song lyrics usually give me inspiration for stories or dialogues.

  4. saraletourneau

    Hahahaha, I love A High Mage’s Guide to Demons and Arcane Magic. And I had a hunch of what the “inspiration” title was before you mentioned it. 😉

    Titles are touch and go for me, too. I don’t usually have one when I start a new writing project, and I usually wait for it to come to me. Sometimes I have a working title, like I do with my new WIP (it’s tentatively called Storm, until something better comes along). And during the first draft of TKC, I went back and forth between Eva’s Story and The Novel. Neither were serious ones, of course!

    1. melfka

      I liked this one too: it’s actually quite matching the fun story. 😀
      “Eva’s Story” sounds very reasonable to me: when I don’t have any title, I usually just use the main character’s name to name the file.

  5. portiabridget

    Choosing the right title is never easy, great to know you’ve got such an efficient helper!

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