Titles 101: Choosing Engaging Names for Creative Work

1Recently, I finished a chapbook of poetry, and while titling each individual poem was something I had been doing for years, drawing together a collection with a cohesive and interesting name was new for me. I ended up copying the title of one of the poems in the collection, “Losing Teeth,” but it got me thinking about how and why we give the names we do to our creative works. I have written poems, plays, articles, and stories, and I’d like to share some ideas for those who may not know where to start.

Summarize your work.

This worked for Kerouac with On The Road, and J.K. Rowling with each installment of the Harry Potter series. It has the advantage of immediately telling readers what they are in for, but titles chosen in this way aren’t necessarily going to be creative or gripping.

Guide readers towards themes and motifs.

The central conflict in Rent is whether or not the main characters will be forced to pay their rent. However, the stories that the musical tells serve to remind the audience that “you can’t take it with you” and to not take life or relationships for granted. The simple title gives weight to the line “Everything is rent,” and invites us to read it as the main idea of the show.

Pick an interesting and unique phrase from your work.

This is particularly easy to do with poetry, because the use of language in the work is creative by definition. However, it would have worked for Kerouac too, who could have just as easily written Burn, Burn, Burn, which is a phrase from one of my favorite passages in the book:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

—Jack Kerouac

Draw connections to another work.

This was one of my favorites to use in college, because it really impresses professors. Think of some similar works, especially literary, that might give your work deeper meaning through a connection with it. To again use Kerouac as an example, he could have gone with American Odyssey or, more subtly, My Name is Nobody.

Of course, titles are an important piece of any creative work, and they require careful consideration. You have to consider everything from the age group of your audience, to conventions of the genre, to the overall effect you want your work to have; for example, Kerouac may have picked his title not only because it is an accurate summary of the book, but because he wanted readers to make connections between his semi-autobiographical character’s adventures and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or maybe he wanted the focus to be on the geography and milieu of America more than individual characters. The ideas listed above are good ways to get your juices flowing, but don’t forget to make sure your title is the perfect one.

Happy titling! If you have any questions or there was something I didn’t address, feel free to comment!

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