Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Title Paradox

Some people have written about the process of creating titles already, so I won't tread old ground too much. That, and it's late at night from where I'm sitting, which means that I'd just like to pose this line of thought before I go to bed.

Assuming that you've written something at least once in your life, I figure that you normally assign titles to your works. You could have gotten creative a few times, or you could have just picked the first phrase that came to mind -- either way, you must have chosen titles for any of your works at some point, even if they were sometimes as cheesy as labeling something "Untitled."

I won't ask where these titles come from. More than a few people have written about this precise topic already, and I suppose that we all know that titles are a pseudo-intuitive exercise. We know that titles will come from words or phrases that strike us about the content of a piece -- they may be taken directly from the work itself, or they might be a peripheral observation that has something to do with the content at hand. Whatever the case, these titles are chosen to entice readers, drop subtle hints about the nature of a story or an essay, or merely serve as a placeholder for when everything has to be collated. In short, we know where titles come from.

What I ask, then, is when do they come about? And, for that matter, when do we actually put them in place? I mean, assuming that a title will come in a flash of inspiration (or a knock on the head, take your pick), they can strike at any time. One can have a title in mind even before one begins writing a story, or it might suddenly appear right in the middle of one's writing process, or one could very well end up struggling to find said title even after the story is finished.

Back when I was in high school, I assumed that the best method involved looking over your work once you were finished, and choosing your title only at that point. I mean, this method would basically ensure that you would know your entire work from beginning to end, and thus you would be in a perfect position to choose a title to encompass everything that had been written.

After a while, though, I realized that this wasn't necessarily the case: Sometimes I was already getting hit by a few good titles in the middle of my writing. In fact, as I went on, I found it more and more difficult to come up with a title only after I had finished my work. I can see a definite catch with this method, of course -- finalizing your title might result in your stratifying the remaining parts of your work just for the purpose of fitting it -- but I've had a lot of good titles come up in this way.

Then there are the times when I literally start off with a title and move from there. There's actually a term for this -- "top-down design", I think -- but the logic behind it is a little unstable. Starting with a title to begin with implies that you'll be able to write at least a thousand words about it, and that it'll all somehow make sense when you're done. I find this to be the equivalent of gambling: you make a bet, you roll the dice, and you pray that the sevens come up. I'm not sure if this really works on a regular basis, but I know that I've been able to do it before.

What I'm really wondering here, mind you, is if there's a solid and appreciable method out there for coming up with good titles. My base logic dictates that we really need to finish writing something before we can find the best title for our needs... but this clearly isn't the case all the time, and I'm pretty sure that we've been able to find some really good titles even without the ability to scrutinize a complete piece.

This bears further observation from my part. Or it could just be the product of a fevered mind, running on very little sleep.

And if you're wondering... I came up with the title for this post about halfway through the second paragraph. It's quite a strange thought.


Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Funny, just the other day I was contemplating compiling a list of my favorite blog post titles from my blog. :) Usually I come up with titles after composing blog entries, but sometimes I start out with a title in mind already, and sometimes the title comes to me in the middle of writing the entry. I find, though, that the best ones are usually the ones that come to me really easily, regardless of when they pop into my head. There are exceptions, of course. My latest blog entry's title is a rewrite ("Steven Spielberg is a spoilsport (literally)"), but I think it's pretty good. :)

Sean said...

Ailee: Hah. Let me know when you're coming up with that list... I can comb through your entries and present mine, just for comparison. :)