No, this heading isn’t a forgotten edit. Annalise Taylor kicks off our blog series for Issue 14, with her reflections on what makes a good title. We know the name of a story can really add to, or detract from a story. Here’s Annalise’s take.
Annalise is from Auckland and has been living in London for the last 16 years. ‘The Girl Who Swallowed a Pencil Sharpener’ is her first published piece, appearing in Issue 14 of Headland. She is currently writing a YA novel when not working as a librarian at an international school in Central London.
“In the case of my story the title came first, fully formed and then sent me on a series of ‘what ifs’ and whys to answer through my writing.”
Titles – they either come to me in a flash and shape the writing of the story or I’m grasping at something in desperation once the story is finished, something that I’m never really satisfied with.
As a reader, my favourite kind of titles are those that intrigue me and the kind that develop layers of meaning as you read on, or even after you have finished the story or book. For example, Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ or Elena Ferrante’s novel ‘My Brilliant Friend’. You read along thinking you know who the brilliant one is but as the story proceeds other options reveal themselves.
Then there are the titles that seem to encapsulate fascinating ideas that you don’t quite understand but hope that the story will reveal to you, such as Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ or Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?’ Perhaps that’s a good title writing technique – pose a question and the reader will want to be able to answer it or at least see how the story addresses it.
So how else to come up with a title if you haven’t been hit by inspiration? Maybe just inverting the word order can add interest and layers of meaning as with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s titular story ‘Friday Black’, set during a Black Friday retail storm in a clothing store. Or use a cliché and take it in an unexpectedly dark direction like Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’.
In the case of my story the title came first, fully formed and then sent me on a series of ‘what ifs’ and whys to answer through my writing. What would lead a girl to swallow a pencil sharpener and once it was inside her, how would it change her thoughts and actions? One thing led to another and soon I was getting to understand Norelle’s background and character. Our childhood friendships are full of unspoken hierarchies but knowledge of the pencil sharpener in her stomach allows Norelle to challenge these power dynamics and slowly reinvent herself.
After all those examples, there are many stories that I have loved that have very simple titles, for example ‘The Safehouse’ by Michel Faber which reminded me that in fiction we can write anything, make anything happen. So, for me, an intriguing title is brilliant but it’s the story that must deliver.
Read Annalise Taylor’s story and more in our latest issue.