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Launching a Story From a Title

It’s hard to develop a story when you can’t get started. Though there are many ways into story creation, one that isn’t considered as often is the title. Titles are often tacked on at the end of the story development process with the knowledge that it will probably change. But titles are full of possibilities.

As legend has it, Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, was asked how to write a sure-fire best seller. Cerf explained that the three most popular literary topics were Abraham Lincoln, medicine, and dogs. So the perfect book would be titled Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. A really catchy title can pique our interest in a book, but the title that grabs me, may not grab you. A quick Amazon search on children’s books turned up a few recent titles that made me perk up: Shaking Things UpThe True Adventures of Esther the Wonder PigThe Dragon LibrarianMiss Newman Isn’t Human, and The Super Awful Superheroes of Classroom 13.

Now, not knowing anything at all about the story contained in these books, what made the titles appealing? It wasn’t title length, as some are short and some are really long. But the book titles do have some things in common.

Surprise is a very engaging thing to find in a book title. And in a title, surprise often comes from putting together things you don’t expect to find co-existing. For example, mostly kids think superheroes are awesome, heroic, and good. So a title that promises “Super Awful Superheroes” is engaging. Another surprise element is the addition of “of Classroom 13” since we simply don’t associate superheroes with elementary school classrooms. So that title was packed with surprises and surprises stir curiosity. And curiosity is a tempting lure that pulls many a kid into picking up a book.

Look at the titles listed and ask yourself. What surprises are in each title? Which other title piles surprise upon surprise much the same way that The Super Awful Superheroes of Classroom 13 does?

A Little Chaos is A Good Thing
If you look over the titles listed above, you’ll notice that one of them doesn’t really seem to have any surprises: Shaking Things Up. There’s no juxtaposing unlikely elements. But the title still grabs, because it gives the reader a peek at chaos. Now, most of us wouldn’t care to live in chaos, but kids are often scolded for being little agents of chaos. They make messes. They find loopholes in the rules that would impress most trial lawyers. They come up with ideas, lots and lots of ideas. All of these things force change, and change is chaos in action. And action is very engaging. A title like Shaking Things Up isn’t going to be pasted on a book full of the same-old, same old. It’s going to be on a book about change. And that’s engaging.

But How Does That Affect Story Creation?
Sometimes it’s fun to throw a little stone soup into the story pot and pull out a title. First, make a list of all the words that draw you to a title. Can you think of any specific words that will make you pause to look at a book every time? Maybe, like me, you love dragons so a title with “dragon” in it is instantly appealing. Or maybe you love sports, so words connected to the sports world grab you. Or maybe words connected to genre will always make you pause like “mystery” or “adventure” or “terror” or “love.” Making a list of the words that you find enticing will help you to use this exercise to spur stories you might like to try writing.

Once you have the list of words, think about how you could mix them with unexpected things to get something attention getting. Here are some unexpected combinations:

Spider’s Ghost
The Book Without a Story
The Cowboy and the Dragon
Space Station Carnival
The Spectacular Adventure of a Silver Dragonfly
The Elephant’s Sneeze
The Coldest Kiss

Now you try it. Mix up some things you found interesting with things you’d never expect to find. Don’t worry about writing the story, just make titles. (At the same time, don’t feel like you need to stick to title writing if one of them begins to nudge you with more ideas. Go ahead and jot down those ideas too.)

Add In Another Element
Another fun thing to play with is names. After all, names are our way of smacking a title on people. And many children’s stories feature titles with names: Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Dory Fantasmagory, Hank Zipzer, Princess Posey, Heidi Hecklebeck, Amelia Bedelia. When names appear in the title, they are often names that are fun to say. And names can tell us something about the story. For instance, you would expect some fun and laughs in a story about Dory Fantasmagory or Amelia Bedelia. But names like Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl don’t seem quite so antic.

Do you have any first names you have always felt were particularly odd or fun. I once wrote a book about a boy named “Alfie” because I just loved the sound of the name. As I thought about the name, I thought: this is a name his parents were probably quite serious about. They named him “Alfred,” and that’s a very serious name with feeling of pomp about it. Plus, Alfred is Batman’s butler, so that’s cool. But “Alfie” is a very different sort of person from “Alfred.” What if the parents were hoping for an “Alfred” and got an “Alfie” instead? And the more I thought about that, the more I came up with the story of a little boy who goes his own way (even though it’s hard).

So add some names to your possibilities list, ponder them, then decide what the rest of the title needs to be:

Anastasia Can’t Stop Sneezing
Mike Makes Monsters
Braylon, First Knight of the Day Riders
Lizeth, Handmaid to the Queen
The Secret Pride of Patience Green
Genesis Gordon, Ghost Detective

Once you have a list (and probably a few jotted notes for at least some items), try coming up with a promotional blurb for the book. A single line that helps expand the story idea while still hinting at more for the reader to learn. The more you poke and prod around the edges of the story idea borne of these titles, the more the story will begin to unfold for you. And this kind of creative exercise will produce possibilities you’ve probably never considered because this kind of back-door approach to story development can sometimes unlock creativity you didn’t even know you had.

So give it a try. What stories pour out of you?

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1000 N. West Street #1200, Wilmington, DE 19801


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