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That Which We Call a Rose

I often see flash fiction writers talking about how difficult it is to come up with titles for their stories. They’ve done all the hard graft of bringing a brilliant character to life, putting them in an interesting situation, infusing their narratives with emotions and emotional shifts, and applying the finishing touch of polish at word / sentence level; but they can’t come up with a title worthy of their mini masterpiece.

Does it even matter what a story is called? If the story is about a woman called Prudence, maybe we should just call it “Prudence” and be done with it? If the story is about a man making a cake, maybe we should just call it “Black Forest Gateau”? As Juliet says in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” – but I’m not sure that quite applies to the names we give our stories. We, as writers, are in the business of words so the title is not just the name we give a story but also the light which we ask a reader to view it in; it casts a shadow – and in flash fiction, where the word count is so tiny, the title makes up a much larger percentage of the word count than in a short story, novella or novel, so its importance is much increased.

In this blog post, then, I’m going to look at the art of story-labelling – what can a good title achieve and how can we go about achieving that? Hopefully, there are some useful ideas here for the next time a mini masterpiece is stubbornly refusing to tell you its name.

What can a good title achieve?

I often think of titles as adverts. If we are browsing the contents of an anthology or a competition longlist, usually all we see are the titles. Some of them will jump out at us and make us want to read. For example, how can you not be intrigued when the title is Holy Jesus, There’s a Nun in Ikea (Sara Hills | Cheap Pop)? I remember seeing that title on my Twitter feed and immediately needing to go and read the piece. What I like about the title is that we have an unlikely juxtaposition of person and place along with the blasphemy of ‘Holy Jesus’ being at odds with the reference to a nun. All of these things intrigue me. However, the title doesn’t need to be outrageous to reel a reader in. Consider the difference between Snow Falling and Snow Falling Upwards (Fiona J Mackintosh | Bath Flash Fiction). The addition of ‘upwards’ changes the title from something quite ordinary to something much more unexpected. Again, I am intrigued. And there is a secondary benefit to titles that work as adverts – they don’t just demand a reader’s attention; if the story is worthy of the title, then the title will stick in the reader’s mind so they can recommend it to other readers later on. This is something I think can be particularly helpful if you want to stand out in a crowded field (i.e. during competition judging) and with so much brilliant flash fiction being published on a daily basis, we are all of us operating in that crowded field.

Another thing that I like about "Holy Jesus, There’s a Nun in Ikea" is that it sets the reader firmly in terms of place; we know where we are, we know a little bit about what is likely to happen in the story (there will be a nun), there’s a suggestion that the story is going to be in first-person narration, we get a hint of the tone of the story. A title might also suggest time as well as place, such as Still Life with Prairie, 1860 (Natalie Teal McAllister | Cheap Pop). From the title, we know where and when we are. Perhaps, that title doesn’t seem to have the same intrigue as the two mentioned above but I really like the subtle choice of that preposition – ‘with’ rather than ‘of a’ – which, when you start to think about it, makes you question how those two elements hang together; and, of course, when we read the story that ‘still life’ changes its meaning from our preconceived idea.

Where a story has an unusual form, a well-chosen title can often suggest what that form is going to be so that a reader is eased into it, taking them gently by the hand and saying ‘this story is going to be told in the form of a list or a cake recipe or a job advertisement.’ A great example of this is Anatomy of a House Fire (Stella Lei | Okay Donkey). It ticks the two boxes I’ve mentioned above – it made me want to read it; it suggests place and content of the story – but it also suggests the manner of the storytelling. There is an accompanying diagram; there are bullet points that annotate the diagram as we might expect if we typed ‘anatomy of [an object]’ into Google. Similarly, I often come back to Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway (Gwen E. Kirby | Smokelong Quarterly) in the way it sets a reader up for the list story that follows while also suggesting character, place, time, tone and so much more.

For me, as mentioned in my introduction to this post, a title should cast a shadow over the story that affects the way a reader approaches it and how they interpret everything within it. Perhaps, it creates a suspense like A Gun in the First Act (Scott Garson | Okay Donkey) – where this prospect of a gun hangs over the mundane actions of the opening, keeping us interested in the story because we are looking for the appearance of the gun. What I also like in this title is how it suggests through ‘First Act’ that this is only the first part of the narrative; there are other acts yet to come and we as a reader are asked to imagine what comes next after this particular scene. A similar shadow is cast by One Every Four Days (Naoise Gale | Reflex Fiction // content warning: suicide) – here, the title relates not so much to this particular tragedy but to other tragedies that tread a similar path.

Sometimes, a good title can act as the key to unlock the mysteries of a story; it is the first piece of a puzzle that perhaps provides a reader with that a-ha moment as I have attempted to do in It was the Horse that Killed Her (Matt Kendrick | Retreat West), giving the reader the solution to the mystery right at the start but leaving the method of the old lady’s death as something that could twist and change as the story unfolds.

How do we go about achieving all that?

One of things I think can be helpful in getting to grips with titles is to read the anonymous longlists for big flash fiction competitions. Which are the ones that jump out at you? Which are the ones that make you want to read them? I did this earlier in the year with the Bath Flash Fiction longlist and these are the ones I picked:

“Car Trouble Spartanburg, August 2002” (suggests place, time and sense of tension)

“Closed captions at the ready” (generally intriguing; suggests an interesting form)

“Cover photo” (I like the double meaning in the word ‘cover’ and the sense of something contained inside)

“Inheritance” (single word titles can have a real weight to them; here, I wanted to know exactly what this inheritance might involve)

“Meeting the Parents in Five Minutes” (a sense of tension, of an upcoming event that will happen after the story)

“Mr Tanaka gets some rest” (this intrigued me because it feels very anti-story – there must be something more to this piece than a man getting some rest)

“Things The Developers Didn’t Know About The Cave On Gorse Hill When They Filled It In To Build Route 67” (immediately I’m sensing a list and I want to know more about the titular cave)

This is a subjective exercise. The list is no longer anonymous but if you have a browse through it, I’m sure there will be other titles that catch your eye and some of the ones I’ve chosen won’t appeal so much; but looking at titles in isolation like this can help suggest different approaches that work for you. They can also give us templates to work from. If we take “Car Trouble Spartanburg, August 2002” this is as simple as BRIEF DESCRIPTION + PLACE + DATE and we could use this for almost any story. I could have applied it to “It was the Horse that Killed Her” and ended up with a title like “Suspicious Deaths on Chestnut Avenue, April 1995.” I’m pretty glad I didn’t go down that route but the “Suspicious Deaths” title certainly feels stronger than my working title of “Old Lady”. Note the similarity between “Thing The Developers Didn’t Know…” and “Shit Cassandra Saw…” above. “Mr Tanaka gets some rest” could equally be a template for other story titles. Other longlists will have other templates we might use to frame titles for own work.

Often, I think what is at the heart of conjuring a great title is having a clear vision of what the story is and does. Where does it take place? When? Who is the central character? What is their motivation? If you were to sum up the story in one sentence, what would you say? What is the main theme in the story? What is the emotional journey you want a reader to travel? What is the main conflict in the piece? Is there anything you’ve left out that you wanted to include? These are all good questions in and of themselves since they hopefully get us to reflect on the story and, if any of them were difficult to answer, perhaps there might be something missing in the body of the story itself; or perhaps we can add this missing piece in the title? I think that last question about ingredients that were left out of the mixing bowl can be quite a good one for discovering an unexpected title that adds to the piece in a meaningful way.

Similarly, the penultimate question – about conflict – can be a good one to focus on. Stories are all about tension so it makes sense that their title might be the first step in setting up that tension right from the start. What two things are in opposition? Can we create a title that pairs two juxtaposing ideas from the story we wouldn’t expect to go together? Or can we create a title that sets up a tension that carries through the piece like Scott Garson has done with “A Gun in the First Act”?

One bit of advice that is often given is to lift a key phrase from the story itself. This is what Fiona J Mackintosh does in “Snow Falling Upwards”. And another piece that does this really well is This Goes On and On (Dan Crawley | Bending Genres). It feels quite bleak as a title; for me, it carries a weary tone but when we come to it in the story itself our understanding of the phrase has changed – creating an echoic effect between title and repetition, like a shift from minor to major chord. Here, it feels like there is real purpose to using a phrase from the story as the title (or alternatively, planting the title within the story) – and I think that’s something to bear in mind when using this technique. Is the repetition adding something? Perhaps rather than reusing a phrase from the story, it might be stronger to transplant that phrase, cut it from the body of the story and give it pride of place as the story’s title.

We've already seen examples above that use the title to set the story in time and place; and I always think this is good starting point in our quest for the perfect title – can the opening sentence be reenvisaged as a title to free up word count, allowing us to plunge a reader even more firmly in media res?

Or perhaps we can use the title to suggest an idea of what happens immediately before the scene or what happens afterwards. Returning to the idea of title templates, we could perhaps break down “Meeting the Parents in Five Minutes” as EVENT + ‘in’ + TIME FRAME. I could have applied it to “It was the Horse that Killed Her” and ended up with “There’ll be Other Sirens in Three Days”. I could equally use a template of TIME FRAME + ‘after’ + EVENT to come up with something like “Three Weeks after the First Death.”

Final thoughts

Hopefully, the above provides some food for thought to help you the next time you’re stuck with a title. There’s no right or wrong, and others will have very different views on what works and what doesn’t. It is impossible (probably) to do everything suggested above but I think we should aim to hit some of those bases, to use the title to add something concrete to our mini masterpieces rather than it just being a label. But then again, perhaps Juliet was right – “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”; perhaps we shouldn’t sweat it too much. At the end of the day, it’s no good having an outstanding title if the accompanying story doesn’t cut the mustard – unless of course, the title itself is the story like Ingrid Jendrzejewski’s prize-winning micro from the National Flash Fiction Day’s competition in 2016.

Anyway, that’s enough on titles. Over the coming months, I’ll be using this blog to look at other component parts of great flash fiction like openings and endings and the stuff that comes in between.


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