Titles: A Typography

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closeup photo of torn posters on top of each other

I’ve always had a wretched time titling my writing. It’s the last thing I do with any piece, and not without a lot of deep sighing. In panic mode I have a rattling tendency to latch on to songs; just in the short history of my posts here, I’ve borrowed titles from Tina Turner and The Spice Girls. In high school I named a short story after a Phil Collins song. When in doubt, by default, I’ve taken from the musical greats.

Still, I have some ideas about what makes a good title:

A good title gives a glimpse of the world created in the work.
A good title, like a poem, conjures the world in a very short space.
A good title offers full vision of the world created in the work.

A title is a conceit, a finalization, or at least a consideration that there is in fact a receiver. You could write a whole book but without a title, how would a reader be invited into possible subjects, meanings, or temperaments of a work, but also how could one even find it – literally find it?

Naming creates structure, to make things tangible and give it shape.
Naming defines and clarifies boundaries.
Naming speeds the expansion of imagination.
To name a work is to give temperature or color to what is to come.

But then what? How does titling work? Try to break it down, try to make it tidy, strategic, or scientific, I dare you. There are no rules to titling—it’s all contextual and characteristic of writer, of content, of genre, sub-genre, and so on.

Here, a taxonomy of titles, in no order or reason other than they’ve struck me.

** In compiling this list, I bemoaned all the wonderful titles I’ve come across but couldn’t recall.

Deliciously Frank Titles that let me know what I’m in for

Titles that Deepen the Mystery of a Work

  • Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
  • The God of Small Things
  • A Good Man is Hard To Find” may sound like cautionary words a mother might dispense to her lovesick daughter but each time I arrive at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story about a vacationing family’s encounter with a stranger, I shudder harder when I remember its seemingly benign title.
  • How Should a Person Be?
  • A Gate at the Stairs is about a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief. The title comes from a song the young narrator writes, and though it conveys a fitting sense of melancholy, I sometimes find it a bit…cold? Sentimental? Spare? Other days I believe it’s perfect. Title-ambivalence aside, this novel by Lorrie Moore is one of my favorites.

The Master of Titles as Clear-Eyed as their Subjects: John McPhee

The Master of Voluminous Titles: David Foster Wallace

Titles that Convey the Essayistic Nature of Thinking and Time

Titles Named After Women therefore; I Love

Simply Fabulous Titles

Title I Dislike, even in its Irony

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Title I don’t like that I like

“Said I Loved You…But I Lied”

Oh wait, that’s a song.