A Typology of Titles: Or What the Hell to Call a Story

From a post on lithub.com by Chris Drangle headlined “Toward a Typology of Titles, Or: What the Hell to Call a Story”:

It’s draft three, a few hundred thousand words in, and I’m thinking about changing the title of my novel….To relieve the stress of this decision, I have been thinking back to a Typology of Titles that I invented a few years back in an attempt to assuage the fears of an Introduction to Creative Writing workshop. Titling is an important art—you’re choosing the very first words that a prospective reader will encounter….

Let’s consider some of the most common types of titles, remembering that titles alone are under scrutiny—not the pieces they represent—and restricting ourselves to short stories for the sake of some basic pre-categorization.

The One-Worder
The one-worder is a classic, from Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” to Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary.”…Then you’ve got “Gospel” by Edward P. Jones and “Apostasy” by Mary Robison, both of which are fairly great….And then there’s “Give” by James Salter, which is just terrible. Poor James Salter—the man wrote exquisite, harrowing fiction, and his tables of contents read like the track listings of pretentious folk albums. By contrast, Isaac Babel’s “Salt” is so mundane that it achieves loveliness, never mind the story’s actual content. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” is both blunt and full of meta-intrigue.

The “The”
Not so much classic as ubiquitous, the “The” title is a phylum among the classes on this list. It is so common a baseline that deciding not to name a story “The Something” might be considered the first step of the titling process, whether or not it’s done consciously. “The Shawl” (Ozick), “The Swimmer” (Cheever), “The Lesson” (Bambara); “The Book of Harlem” (Hurston), “The Book of Sand” (Borges), “The Book of Miracles” (Danticat); “The Garden Party” (Mansfield), “The Sacrificial Egg” (Achebe), “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” (Bender). Look through any anthology from any era. Almost by their nature, “The” titles are Not Terrible. The presence of the definite article can add interest or menace to an otherwise innocuous title (“The Waltz” by Dorothy Parker), or participate in the energy of something more fanciful (“The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite” by Adam Johnson), or help blend the grandiose with the quotidian (“The Princess of Nebraska” by Yiyun Li).

The Name
What is our protagonist’s name? Vanka? Okay, then we’ll call this one . . . “Vanka.” (Chekhov.) To some extent, the success of naming a story after a character depends on the character name in question. No one is going to skip over “The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite” to read “Larry.” But “Camilla” (Mary Robison) has a nice ring, more charisma than “Larry” anyway, while “Ruthy and Edie” (Grace Paley) promises a relationship with probable tensions, as do “Sabrina and Corina” (Kali Fajardo-Anstine), “Wolf and Rhonda” (Jamel Brinkley), and “Jane and the Cane” (Lydia Davis). This latter example reminds us that name titles are not limited to names exclusively, as also demonstrated in William Trevor’s titling habits (“Coffee with Oliver,” “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts,” “The Raising of Elvira Trimlett”).

The Dialogic
Dialogic titles may or may not be direct quotes from the story, but in either case they take on a conversational tone, or even ask (or answer) questions. Carver loved these: “Why Don’t You Dance?” “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” “They’re Not Your Husband.” Helen Oyeyemi fuses a finger-wag with irresistible mystery in “if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think.” Barry Hannah, as might be expected, makes it weird: “Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?” Julie Orringer transmits humble pathos through “When She is Old and I Am Famous,” and Annie Proulx coins an ambiguous adage in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water.” (Which is Great, one of my all-time favorite titles.)

The Wackadoo
The Wackadoo forgoes convention in favor of polka dots and arm flailing. It might be unusual in a relatively quiet, form-adjacent way (“Nothing: A Preliminary Account” by Donald Barthelme), or it might be only and unapologetically itself (“Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires). Haruki Murakami likes himself a wackadoo (“On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”) and Lorrie Moore has dabbled (“People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”). As with other categories, there is crossover and relativity here—“Sorry Fugu” and “The 100 Faces of Death, Volume IV,” both by T.C. Boyle, are weird in completely different ways. This is perhaps the riskiest category, with a somewhat lessened chance of achieving Not Terrible-ness, but a better shot at Great. (And terrible.)…

Of course this list is nowhere close to being exhaustive, or even particularly thorough. And, as can be seen even from the examples above, there’s no shortage of cross-pollination between categories, and a given title might sit comfortably in several at once. The category isn’t important, anyway—what’s important, when engaged in the art of titling, is to strive for Not Terrible….

If you have the energy to strive for Great, then by all means strive. Explorers in the outer realms of title-creation do important work, expanding future possibilities for all of us. But whether you’re naming a short story, a poem, an essay, or an unclassifiable feat of hybridity, I hope it helps to remember that an “okay” title can be great, and that “just fine” is an illustrious category. Use a name, lift some dialogue, have fun. Failing all else, name the piece after a weapon.

Chris Drangle is a writer from Arkansas. His fiction has appeared in One Story, the Oxford American, Granta, and elsewhere. He has taught creative writing in New Orleans, Central New York, the Bay Area, and Kazakhstan, and currently lives in Athens, Georgia.

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