10 suggestions for choosing creative titles for a paper

Writing an essay is an excellent way to stimulate creative thinking

It is frequent, therefore, to have doubts when we start in this type of writing. The following are 10 suggestions for choosing creative titles for a paper.

1. The title can (and ideally should) accomplish all the objectives it can have at the same time: in particular, it is possible that it will incite interpretations without forcing them, that it will be attractive and that, after a first reading, it will be memorable. On the other hand, how balanced these three ends can be – how much one or the other weighs more – depends on the text. An academic essay will have to be more formal and dry than a literary essay, for example, because it will have to state its subject explicitly and clearly; a crime novel that wants to enter a well-established market without many problems will have to adjust its title to what that market expects, which will probably include references to weapons, crimes and the like. (A notable exception is the Spanish version of the title of a beautiful and terrible novel by Horace McCoy: Don’t they kill horses? which would have been more literally translated from English: Horses get shot, don’t they?).

2. Even in less ambitious projects, the title is invariably a key to interpretation, as Eco says, and may suggest ideas, associations, references to every possible reader. This is inevitable; therefore, it is important to ensure that at least the most obvious references remain under the control of the writer and go where he or she wishes. An exemplary case of a reference out of control – that is, a ridiculous example – is Nelson Hayes’ novel Dildo Cay, which can be read about here.

3. Something else to consider, on the other hand, is that not all the senses of a title will be captured by all possible readers. A difficult or impenetrable title may also be very rich in suggestions and propose many readings but, if one is not careful, it may be incomprehensible to all but a few people.

4. The most eye-catching titles at any given time are not necessarily always so. A title that refers to a current event, for example, may be useful while that fact is still remembered and commented on, but may later prove to be not only clumsy but indecipherable. (There will, of course, be those who consider that this is not a problem if their aspiration is only to take advantage of a juncture, as many political reporters, for example, do.)

5. Titles that refer too directly to a previous work should be avoided, as they can subordinate the new text to the pre-existing one and force it to a conditioned or even erroneous reading. One book that is barely saved from this problem (and there are those who believe that it is not saved) is Ulysses, by James Joyce, which of course refers to Homer’s Odyssey but also distances itself from that text in many ways. Several of the worst titles I have found, because they also precede really bad texts, are those of the most na├»ve parodies: “The True Story of Romeo and Juliet” and others like that.

6. Above all in a narrative text, it is necessary to avoid too explicit references to its argument, and not only so as not to “sell” the end but because what counts is not usually what happens but how: for example, the title of the novel The Seafarer Who Lost the Grace of Yukio Mishima’s Sea turns out to suggest, at least, quite a lot of what happens in its pages, but it certainly does not do it in a direct way: it is necessary to read to find out exactly what it means “to lose the grace of the sea” and to understand to what extent the meaning of the phrase is figurative.

7. A common trick with titles is that the literal sense hides, as in the previous case, a more hidden but more important one. It is also common that a single sense of a title can be understood in two or more ways. (For example, Joyce’s tale “The Dead” could refer to all the dead, to certain dead close to the characters, or to some living characters that don’t look like them.) This is also a valid strategy, albeit more complicated than it seems.

8. It is not true that the simplest and shortest titles go better with the simple texts, nor, on the contrary, that complex texts require long, intricate titles or a lot of verbal work. Examples: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a highly complex novel, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Monsters Live (the original title is better: Where the Wild Things Are, because it omits to say the word monsters directly), a children’s story that is no more than a handful of sentences.

9. Excessively abstract titles should be avoided, especially when abstraction is a poetic image that attempts to explain or summarize a state of mind or a situation, since it is very difficult to avoid the title becoming a clumsy and at the same time opaque image that says nothing to the reader (It is the same problem that many narrative texts have when they do not offer a grip on anything visible, that is, perceptible or objectively real within the narrated world they propose.)

10. Finally, a practical proposal: when it comes to choosing a title, and especially one for an extensive text such as a novel, it is useful to try several and not decide quickly for just one. A list can be made, for example, starting from the most obvious alternatives such as the conclusion – revealed – of a plot, its central incident, the name of the protagonist, the object or central objective of the action, and then continuing with metaphors and other alternatives farther from the literal. One criterion that is almost always useful is that the title, by itself, must be expressive, that is, not only sound good but deliberately seek those associations of which I have written, and which go beyond the obvious.