Read Like A Writer

There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.

John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction


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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Creating a Good Title for Your Short Story by Charles Raymond Barrett

Too often the novice considers the title of his story a matter of no import. He looks upon it as a mere handle, the result of some happy afterthought, affixed to the completed story for convenience or reference, just as numbers are placed on the books in a library. The title is really a fair test of what it introduces, and many a MS. has been justly condemned by its title alone; for the editor knows that a poor title usually means a poor story. Think, too, how often you yourself pass a story by with but a casual glance, because its title does not interest you: experience has shown you that you seldom enjoy reading a story which bears an unattractive title.

“A book’s name often has an astonishing influence on its first sale. A title that piques curiosity or suggests excitement or emotion will draw a crowd of readers the moment it appears, while a book soberly named must force its merits on the public. The former has all the advantage of a pretty girl over a plain one; it is given an instantaneous chance to prove itself worth while. A middle aged, unalluring title (‘In Search of Quiet,’ for instance) may frighten people away from what proves to be a mine of wit and human interest. A book headed by a man’s name unmodified and uncommented upon—such as ‘Horace Chase’—is apt to have a dreary, unprepossessing air, unless the name is an incisive one that suggests an interesting personality. Fragments of proverbs and poems are always attractive, as well as Biblical phrases and colloquial expressions, but the magic title is the one that excites and baffles curiosity. The publishers of a recent ‘Primer of Evolution’ received a sudden flood of orders for the book simply on account of a review which had spoken of it under the sobriquet, ‘From Gas to Genius.’ Many copies were indignantly returned when the true title was revealed.” “In 1850 Dr. O. M. Mitchell, Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Cincinnati, gave to the press a volume entitled ‘The Planetary and Stellar Worlds.’ The book fell dead from the press. The publisher complained bitterly of this to a friend, saying, ‘I have not sold a single copy.’ ‘Well,’ was the reply, ‘you have killed the book by its title. Why not call it “The Orbs of Heaven”?’ The hint was accepted and acted upon, and 6,000 copies were sold in a month.”

The title might almost be called the “text” of the story; it should be logically deduced from the plot; so a poor title usually indicates a poor plot and a poor story. This name line should grow out of the phase of the plot, rather than the basic theme, else it will be too abstract and general. It is so closely allied to the plot that they should be born synchronously—or if anything the title should precede the plot; for the story is built up around the central thought that the title expresses, much as Poe said he wrote “The Raven” about the word “nevermore.” At least, the title should be definitely fixed long before the story is completed, and often before it has taken definite form in the writer’s mind. That this is the practice of professional writers may be proved by a glance at the literary column of any periodical, where coming books are announced by title when scarcely a word of them has been written. So if you have difficulty in finding an appropriate title for your story, first examine your plot, and make sure that the cause does not lie there. In case you are unable to decide among a number of possible titles, any one of which might do, you may find that your plot lacks the definiteness of impression required by the short story; but a fertile intellect may suggest a number of good titles, from which your only difficulty is to select the best.

A good story may be given a bad title by its author, and so started toward failure. Novices are peculiarly liable to this fault, usually through allowing themselves to be too easily satisfied. They go to infinite pains to make the story itself fresh and individual, and then cap it with a commonplace phrase that is worse than no title at all. A good title is apt, specific, attractive, new, and short.

A title is apt if it is an outgrowth of the plot—a text, as I have said. It stands definitely for that particular story, and gives a suggestion of what is to come—but only a suggestion, lest it should anticipate the denouement and so satisfy the curiosity of the reader too soon. An apt title excites and piques the curiosity almost as much as does the story itself. Examples: Hawthorne’s “The Wedding Knell;” Poe’s “‘Thou Art the Man!'” Wilkins’ “The Revolt of Mother.” Each of these titles conveys an idea, though a vague one, of the theme of the story, and so its aptness is apparent; but frequently the relevancy of the title is evident only after the story has been read, as in the case of James’ “The Real Thing” and “The Lesson of the Master.” Such a title is almost ideal. This suspension of aptness, carried to the extreme, produces such vague and weak titles as:

“Happiness Won.”

“Almost Too Late.”

“After All.”


The title must be specific or it is seldom apt. It is in this particular that the novice generally fails. He deduces his title rather from the original plot, or even from the theme, than from the particular phase which he presents; but its title should distinguish his story from the host of tales builded upon the same basic plot, just as the Christian name of a Smith distinguishes him from the rest of the great family of which he is a member. Thus we have such titles as the following, which are more appropriate for essays in psychology, moral philosophy, or some kindred subject, than for fiction:
“How Dreams Come True.”

“Moral Vision.”

“Sorrow and Joy.”

“The Straight Path.”

More often the unspecific title is simply a vague reference to the general style of the story:

“A Wedding in a Texas Jail.”

“A Frightful Night Ride.”

“A Unique Rescue.”

“A Lynching Incident.”

“Nature’s Freaks.”

“A Valuable Discovery.”

“The Widow.”

“A Valued Relic.”

“A Strange Case.”

“The Old Clock.”

“The Office Boy.”

None of these titles represents any definite idea, and in nearly every case it served to introduce a story which was equally vague, ordinary, and uninteresting. Several of them, too—notably the first four—were not stories at all, but were simply bits of description by narrative, as their titles would suggest.

In general a phrase, otherwise indefinite, becomes specific when united with the name of a character, as in Hawthorne’s “Howe’s Masquerade” and “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle;” but such titles are usually ordinary and unattractive. Some words frequently found in these compound titles are so vague in meaning or so worn from use that their total avoidance is the only safe course. Such are “Christmas,” “Adventure,” “Romance,” “Story,” “Vision,” and “Dream.” A “Dream” or a “Vision” is usually the relation of some commonplace incident with absurd adornments; and an “Adventure” is more often a piece of description than of narration. I know that these words may be found in combination in many happy titles, but it is best that the novice let them severely alone. That such titles are really a serious impediment to the success of their stories is shown by the action of the Chicago Record. For some years it was the custom of the Record to offer substantial cash prizes for the best Christmas stories written by school children; and prominent among the rules governing the competition was the announcement that stories bearing such titles as “Johnnie’s Christmas,” “Nellie’s Christmas,” “Mary’s Christmas,” would not even be read. The following titles show how fond is the novice of these objectionable words in their baldest combinations:
“Sarah’s Christmas Present.”

“Adventures with a Bear.”

“Nettie’s Romance.”

“Lee’s Romance.”

“A Woman’s Love Story.”

“The Captain’s Story.”

“A True Story.”

“The Story of a Vision.”

“The Dream at Sea.”

“Viola’s Dream.”

“Mabel’s Dream.”

“Eleanor’s Dream.”

The title should be attractive because it will be the test of the story, and it must be sufficiently interesting to arouse at a glance the curiosity of the reader, and induce in him a desire to peruse the narrative that it offers. Commonplaceness is the chief cause of the unattractive title, and that fault is usually traceable to the plot itself. It may, however, be due to a conventional expression of the dominant idea of the story, as in the list just given; and also in the following:

“How Amy Won the Prize.”

“Fred Norton, the Artist.”

Or it may be unattractive through comprising only the name of the chief character:

“Lucy Bonneville.”

“Lester Rice.”

The use of a name for a title is a matter which it is difficult to settle. If the story is dominated by one character, and particularly if it is a genuine Character Study, the writer naturally feels that he cannot do better than to name it after the character it depicts; and he has good authority for so doing in the example of Poe (“Berenice,” “Elenora,” “Morella”), Hawthorne (“Sylph Etherege,” “Ethan Brand,” “Wakefield”), Irving (“Wolfert Webber,” “Rip Van Winkle”), James (“Sir Dominic Ferrand,” “Nona Vincent,” “Greville Fane”), Stevenson (“Olalla,” “Thrawn Janet,” “Markheim”), Wilkins (“Louisa”), Davis (“Gallegher,” “Cinderella”), Kipling (“Lispeth,” “Namgay Doola”), etc., etc. A good rule to observe would be this: If the name of the chief personage gives a hint of character, or if it is sufficiently unusual to attract attention, it may be used as a title; but in general it will be stronger if used in combination.

In the endeavor to make his title distinctive and attractive the novice is liable to fall into the error of making it cheap and sensational. A title which offends against good taste must not be used, no matter how desirable it may appear in the matter of attractiveness. The newspaper caption writer who headed an account of a hanging “Jerked to Jesus!” attained the acme of attractiveness, but he also committed an unpardonable sin against good taste. The short story writer seldom descends to such depths of sensationalism: his chief offense consists in the use of double titles, connected by the word “or.” Often either title alone would be passable, if not really good; but their united form must be placed in the category of bad titles. Such titles are rated as bad chiefly through the effects of association. It used to be common for a story to bear a double title; but to-day the custom has been relegated to the cheap, sensational tale of the “penny dreadful” order, and the conjunctive title is a recognized mark of “yellow” literature. This fault in a title can usually be corrected by the use of either of the titles alone, as may be seen from a study of the following:

(1) “The Story of Dora; or, Innocence Triumphant.”

(2) “Jessie Redmond; or, The Spider and the Fly.”

(3) “Outwitted; or, The Holdup of No. 4.”

(4) “The Battle of the Black Cats; or, A Tragedy Played with Twenty Thousand Actors and Only One Spectator.”
(5) “Fate; or, Legend of ‘Say Au Revoir, but not Goodbye.'”

(6) “The Romance of a Lost Mine; or, The Curse of the Navajos.”

(7) “A Little Bunch of Rosebuds; or, Two Normal Graduates.”

(8) “Her Silk Quilt; or, On the Crest of the Wave.”

(1) Neither part is particularly happy. “The Story of Dora” is too general, and conveys an idea of largeness and time that is better suited to the novel than to the short story; “Innocence Triumphant” is cheap, sensational and trite. (2) “Jessie Redmond” is too commonplace a name to be a good head line; “The Spider and the Fly” was worn out years ago. (3) Either title alone is good; “The Holdup of No. 4” is preferable because of its definiteness. (4) “The Battle of the Black Cats” alone would pass, in spite of its hint of sensationalism; but the second part is of course ludicrously impossible. (5) “Fate” is too indefinite; the second title is cheap and old. (6) Either would do, though the first is somewhat vague, and “Curse” savors of sensationalism. (7) Either would do, though the first sounds rather silly. (8) The first is good; the second is vague and rather old.

That a title should be new is so obvious that offenses against this rule are usually unconscious; yet in some cases stories have been capped with stolen headings, where the theft was so apparently intentional that it seemed as if the writer wished to fail. Lapses in this regard are usually due to the writer’s ignorance of the value of a title; or to the too ready use of the abstract theme, as mentioned before. Of such titles are “All’s Well that Ends Well,” “Love’s Labor Lost,” and “The Irony of Fate,” all of which are great favorites with the beginner. Like charity, they will cover a multitude of sins, but they constitute so great a literary sin in themselves that they should be rigorously eschewed. To this class belongs also such a title as “Cuba Libre!” which is so very old, and which during the last few years has been so twisted and mishandled in every conceivable way that its mere use is an irritation. Such a title will frequently be apt, specific, attractive, and, in application, new; but it will so exasperate the reader that its use will be perilous.

For self-evident reasons the title should be short. Aptness and specificness do not require an epitome of the story; and a title like “Why Tom Changed His Opinion of Me,” or “What the Rabbit Drive Did for Me” is prosy as well as long. It used to be the custom to make the title of a writing a regular synopsis of the matter contained therein; but modern readers object to being told in advance exactly what is to happen. No ruling concerning the proper length of a short story title is possible; but generally speaking, the shorter the title the better it is. Compound titles connected by “or,” like those previously mentioned, are as offensive in their length as in their sensationalism.

To illustrate further these several points I introduce here a few good titles used by successful short story writers. They are roughly divided into three classes according to their derivation. The title may be the text of the story:

Edgeworth: “Murad the Unlucky.”

Hawthorne: “The Wedding Knell;” “The Prophetic Pictures.”

James: “The Real Thing;” “The Lesson of the Master.”

Poe: “The Masque of the Red Death;” “‘Thou Art the Man!'”

Stockton: “The Transferred Ghost.”

Wilkins: “The Revolt of Mother;” “Two Old Lovers.”

The title may represent the principal character by name or by some apt appellation:
Davis: “Gallegher.”

Hawthorne: “The Ambitious Guest;” “Feathertop.”

Irving: “The Spectre Bridegroom;” “Rip Van Winkle.”

Poe: “Morella;” “Ligeia.”

Stevenson: “Markheim.”

Wilkins: “A Modern Dragon;” “A Kitchen Colonel.”

The title may mention the principal object:

Adee: “The Life Magnet.”

Burnett: “The Spider’s Eye.”

Hawthorne: “The Great Stone Face;” “The Great Carbuncle.”

James: “The Aspern Papers.”

Kipling: “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw.”

Poe: “The Black Cat;” “The Gold Bug.”

Stevenson: “The Bottle Imp.”

Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett

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