Some people have a natural gift for titling their stories. Most do not. As the Editor-in-Chief of Flash Me Magazine, I see hundreds of story titles every month. Most of them are bland, many are too telling, some are too long, a few don't fit the story at all, and the rest are usually okay, but not stellar. While a story's title does not influence whether or not FMM accepts a story, it should be more than just okay. A story's title should make you want to read the story. It should make the reader curious. It should hint at what's to come, but not give everything away.
Think of the title as the gift-wrapping of a present. You just bought the perfect gift for someone you want to impress. Will you throw it in a paper bag? Wrap it in the business section of the Sunday paper? Use Christmas paper for a birthday gift? Or do you want to use the perfect paper with a coordinating ribbon? It's the first impression, and you want to see a look of glee on the person's face when they see the package. Have you ever received a gift with paper so pretty you had to open it carefully so you could save the paper? That's what your title should emulate. Something so perfect it can't be tossed aside, ripped to shreds, or ignored.
Bland titles don't illicit instant excitement. They don't do a story any favors and indicate a lack of writing pizzazz. If the title is bland, the reader usually expects a bland story. It's human nature. There are a few words that scream "bland" that should be avoided in story titles: ordinary, just, and another. If it's just another ordinary day, why would I want to read about it? I see these words often in titles, and they never inspire joy-joy feelings.
Some other bland titles involve oversimplifying. The _____. or The ____ and The ___. The Pot. The Dog. The Boy. The Day. The Dog and The Cat. The House and The Rain. Not only are those titles bland, they are telling, as well. The Dog. A story about a dog. Joy. The Bad Dog. Not much better. The Bad Dog Who Became a Superhero. It's just getting worse. I now know everything that should happen in the story, so why read the story? The Bad Dog Who Became a Superhero After His Owner Died in a Fire. Oh, my. Now we're bland, telling, and too long. You may think that's a ridiculous example, but I've seen many, many titles this long (or longer!). At FMM, many titles feel longer than the stories. Not good.
It's harder to describe titles that don't fit the story. These are titles that, after reading the story, just don't seem to have anything to do with what I've just read. You don't want telling titles, but they should relate, somehow.
The best titles, in my opinion, are the ones that you either only understand after reading the story, or titles that quote words from the story - preferably words near the end or from the climax. Some examples? Sure!
From the FMM archives:
“Especially the Rooster” by Mark Fewell from FMM's first issue, July 31, 2003. The title made me want to read the story. It tells me there's a rooster (hopefully) in the story, but otherwise is obscure. The words Especially the rooster are in the story three times, the third time being the last line. Nicely done. Ties in nicely, and I only understand the title after reading the story. Doesn't give too much away and isn't too long. Perfect.
"Survivalist" by Kevin Brown is the current issue's Feature Story, July 31, 2009. The title is concise and hints at what's to come, but doesn't give too much away. Who survives what? I wonder. Well, I had to read the story to find out. "Survivalist" isn't a direct quote from the story, but the word ties in perfectly with the ending. Perfect.
Look for something that hints at what's to come, but doesn't give it away. Think about elegant gift wrap that doesn't have the words "Happy Birthday" on it. Balloons are okay, as are cakes with candles, but what about something sparkly or special that, if you were carrying it down the street, people will assume is a birthday gift but won't know for sure. Be creative and have fun with it.