Titles and their unimportance
Many essays have been written and lessons taught on the importance of titles. It is my intent to contradict none of them.
The fact is the title is the only aspect of a book or story’s first impression that an author can control. The other items such as the cover art, the back cover or end flap plot summation, the story placement in the anthology, and the accompanying illustration in the magazine, are left to the editor and publisher. The title is (generally) the author’s choice.
I understand that there is depth associated with the choice of a memorable title, whether “The Crying of Lot 49″ or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” or “A is for Alibi”. It doesn’t even have to be a long title. “Ringworld” and “Necroscope” are single-word titles which are simultaneously unique and descriptive. But I break with common wisdom in the relative value of a great title.
A great title does not elevate a story. A lackluster title does not diminish a story by any significant amount. the rare exceptions to these rules reside primarily in “flash fiction” or “short short stories” where the title interacts with the body of the work and can have an additive or deleterious effect.
I’ll give you a couple of good examples. “The Resonance of Blood” was the second in a series, after “The Screaming Knife”. Both were supernatural thrillers written by Robert E. Vardeman in the early 1990s. These two books had memorable titles, the protagonist was unusual, and the author brought his typical professionalism to the work. The stories, however, were average… nothing bad, nothing wonderful, and easily lost amidst his other stories.
Opposing examples abound. “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury. “The Hunter” by Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake. “The Model” by Robert Bloch. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. All of these authors were unarguable masters in their form, and that included an ability to create striking titles. In each of these cases, they created stories which would linger in the mind regardless of what the stories were called.
Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″… one of the best-known stories in the English language… was originally published under the prosaic “The Fireman”. The story was not made better by the change in title, nor any more memorable to those who had read it; it merely became more recognizable and interesting for those who had not. F. Paul Wilson’s “The Tomb” is an immensely popular novel which has seen dozens of printings in multiple languages and which spawned a series of bestselling novels, all without a tomb present within the text of the story (which is why the novel was retitled to Rakoshi, the author’s preferred title, upon its limited edition release.)
Note, however, I said the “relative” value of a great title. As mentioned before, it is something which helps to generate a first impression, and first impressions are valuable tools to the writer. Anything that can remove the “potential” qualifier from a reader deserves attention. Any chance you have to add to the overall presentation of your work should be examined for maximum positive effect.
But, as with revising, be prepared to accept a seemingly mundane title rather than overworking at being clever or unique. A great story will always shine through. As long as you don’t leave the bookseller dealing with a situation of “that story by that guy”, you’ve done your job.