Do you groan about a story title’s inclusion in the text?

by on Sep.22, 2012, under Observations, Process

How often do you read a story and come across the title of the story in the text, and groan to yourself, thinking “Oh god, that was a horrible way to shove the title in?”

Apparently, this happens quite often. But I have done some analysis of this topic, and from what my limited testing shows, this may be an artifact of reader expectation. Let me share with you what I have observed, and then you tell me what you think.

I have a particular way of naming stories. I don’t. I give them a boring, generic title while I write the story (ie Page, Park, Donut, Rail) and then site down to get the story written. At some point, sometimes when I am writing the text but often when I have finished and am revising the text, I pick out a phrase which seems to embody the nature of the piece and rename the work to that phrase. This is how we get names like Children of Another Star. It came from dialog that came during an all night organic, chase-the-muse session.

When my stories are reviewed by others, a certain subset of reviewers tend to complain that the title was horribly shoved into the text and that I really didn’t need to do that. After a few years, I’ve noticed that these readers tend to be the same people every time. So just for fun, I sent them two new pieces with some different titles:

1. The title done exactly as I always do it.

2. The title taken from a different part of the text.

3. The title doesn’t match the text at all.

What I observed was that the following:

1. The ones who received copies with the title done normally complained exactly as expected. They did not complain that the sentence which contained the alternate title was awkward.

2. The complaint about the title being shoved into the text moved to the new title’s placement in the text. They did not complain that the sentence which contained the original title was awkward.

3. If the title didn’t match the text at all, the readers sometimes complained that they didn’t understand the title but it was a fairly soft complaint. Most said nothing.

As a weird contrast, I did the #3 testing on people who don’t complain about the titles and they all pointed out that I always name the story tied well to the plot, and they didn’t feel for the title as much this time.

This leads to an interesting conclusion from my limited testing:

Some readers will perceive the title in the text as being “forced in” when it appears in the text. They find this horrible. The sentence which contains the title becomes awkward due to the focus of having the title within it, but is not objectionable when the title does not provide that focus.

Now, one of the reasons that I believe my testing may be different from others is that my stories with one exception are all named in phrases, always conceptual in nature, usually taken directly from dialogue in the story but sometimes from musings of the antagonist. I have no instinct for deriving a useful title from nouns, so I’ve only done that for a single story which was inherently obvious. So the conceptual nature taken directly from a character’s voice of my choices may strike people differently.

I’m curious about what others have perceived. Have you seen similar responses from readers of your stories? Have you taken a specific approach to naming your stories to avoid annoying a subset of readers?

Leave a Reply