pencil in a title

How to Begin Your Story—Pencil In a Title

The title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby encapsulates the complicated feelings we have about Jay Gatsby—driven by a dream, enriched by bootlegging wealth but, for all that, as the narrator Nick insists, ‘great’. Would the novel have achieved its near mythic status if Fitzgerald retained one of his original titles, ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’, or ‘The High Bouncing Lover’, or ‘Under the Red White and Blue’?

“A good title should be like a good metaphor. It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.” —Walker Percy

Titles call out most loudly to readers. And those that draw from the flavor of allusions color the story to follow with force and economy. Take, for example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The narrative is set in the 1890s, just at the point when Western missionaries arrive on their civilizing mission to eastern Nigeria. The novel follows the doomed career of a village leader, Okonkwo. He is not strong enough to resist the force of Western colonialism. Okonkwo is proudly heathen: his gods are Idemili, Ogwugwu, Ababala. But the title points elsewhere, to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The allusion in Yeats’s own title is to the Book of Revelation, which forecasts the second coming of Christ after the apocalypse. What is the effect of that allusion to the second power (Yeats/Revelation) on the novel? That something terrible will happen, the destruction of Okonkwo, with the promise—in the distant future—of salvation (i.e., independence for the as yet unborn state of Nigeria).

Hemingway has dished up the allusively elegiac For Whom the Bell Tolls (somebody is going to die), the hardboiled The Killers (somebody is going to get murdered), and the biblically portentous The Old Man and the Sea (somebody is going to spend time on the cross).

For Whom the Bell Tolls refers to a work by John Donne in which he explores the interconnectedness of humanity:

“Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that….

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Hemingway echoes ‘for whom the bells tolls’ and ‘no man is an island’ to emphasize his feelings of solidarity with the allied groups fighting the fascists.

The title of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India points to Walt Whitman’s poem by that name. In Whitman’s “A Passage to India”, he takes readers on an imaginary journey through time and space where a fabled land inspired Columbus to seek a westward route from Europe to India, a route that ended with the discovery of America. Whitman sees both India and America as caught up in an inexorable thrust that pushes countries toward progress. Forster’s novel explores the darker side of colonization. While Whitman uses interracial marriage as a metaphor for harmony, Forster demonstrates how interracial affections can inflame deep-seated racial animosities. Whitman ends his poem with an invocation to follow the great explorers, while Forster’s novel asks us to question the motives behind a passage that subjects entire peoples to the rule of a foreign power.

Another allusion-based title phrase is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which is borrowed from Shakespear’s Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (5.5: 19-28)

Faulkner firmly roots the story in this Shakespearean passage. Not only is the opening chapter narrated by a mentally disabled person, thus “told by an idiot”, the second chapter presents Quentin Compson as “a walking shadow” seeking “dusty death.” As well, Faulkner’s bell imagery echoes that of Lady Macbeth’s bell, which provides the signal for Macbeth to murder Duncan. The bells in both Macbeth and The Sound and the Fury denote opportunities for choices.

While there are no Man Booker or NBA prizes for outstanding titles, some novelists do excel over others.

“Do give the work a name as quickly as possible,” says Roddy Doyle. “Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.”

The Lead Exercise

Use an aphorism for a lead sentence and write a story opening.

  • Nobody forgets where he buried the hatchet.
  • Shallow is the grave of offense, and quick is the man to dig it up again. Like a dog who has buried his bone returns to the booty, many a man loves to gnaw and chew on an old injury, upon crimes committed against him. (Great way to begin a story.)   
  • The graveyards are full of indispensable men.
  • Fortune does not change men; it unmasks them.
  • It is hard to believe a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
  • Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make use of the other five.
  • It is no tragedy to do ungrateful people favors, but it is unbearable to be indebted to a scoundrel.
  • They say that Adversity introduces a man to himself.
  • There are people who so arrange their lives that they feed themselves only on side dishes.


Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist