Method One Playing With Exotic Titles


A story title is not always dictated by the finished work. Indeed, by spending an hour playing with odd title possibilities, you may gradually generate an entire story idea. Begin by choosing a dramatic or colorful word that will catch a potential reader's interest and which will be the central word of the title you finally arrive at. Man, horse, winter, rain, coat, and similar words would be bad choices, for they are too common and undramatic. Words like death, blood, fear, witch, killer, thief, darkness, prisoner, and sword would be good title beginnings, for each has dramatic potential. With a key word in mind you're ready to begin winging it.

I've always kept notebooks in which I record all my free-associating for posterity, and I can, therefore, faithfully recall how I generated title and plot for my first published science fiction story. I began with the central word dragon, because it was rich with fantastic, fearful implications. At first, I played at adjectival amplification of that single word, jotting each idea down in a list:

The Cold Dragon

The Warm Dragon

The Dancing Dragon

The Black Dragon

The Eternal Dragon

The Waiting Dragon

The Dead Dragon

Steel Dragon

The Crying Dragon

When that seemed to be leading nowhere, I tried following the word dragon with various prepositional phrases:

Dragon in the Darkness Dragons on My Mind Dragon in Amber Dragon in the Sky Dragon by the Tail Dragon for the King Dragon in the Land

Several of those attempts were good titles but didn't spark my imagination at that time. Next, I tried using a series of verbs with the key word:

The Dragon Stalks


The Dragon Watches The Dragon Creeps The Dragon Feasts at Midnight The Dragon Fled

But none of those were particularly intriguing. I moved on, trying to amplify the title by adding another noun:

The Dragon and the Sea The Dragon and the Night The Dragon and the Knight The Dragon and the Key of Gold

Finally, when I tried coupling the key word with other words that seemed at odds with it, I hit on the right track:

The Weak Dragon

The Sad Dragon

The Timid Dragon

The Tiny Dragon

The Soft Dragon

The contrast in the last somehow appealed to me. I began toying with different applications of it: The Soft Dragon

The Dragon Who Screamed Softly The Dragon Who Walked Softly The Dragon Came Softly

And finally the title was there, effective because of its slightly altered word order and its contrasts: Soft Come the Dragons

After an hour of word games, I had hit upon a set of words that broke open that inner storeroom and set my mind to racing. In another few minutes, I had an entire plot in mind, concerning an alien world where flying dragons, as insubstantial as tissue paper, are inexplicably able to kill with their gaze. When I chose the proper characters and motivations, those too came naturally, with very little work. The resultant story received a modest amount of acclaim, brought me a couple of dozen fan letters in the years after its publication, became the title story of a paperback collection of some of my science fiction pieces, and has been published in Spain, France, and Japan. The muse had been reluctant that day, but I tickled her feet with a mental feather until she got to work!

For many reasons, you should keep a notebook full of ideas—mine is unorganized, chaotic but full of rich little bits written in at random—titles, scraps of dialogue and character sketches, so that you may return to these at a later date to get a sluggish imagination going again. But if you use the playing-with-exotic-titles game to get story ideas, you'll find a notebook especially valuable. That morning I spent coming up with "Soft Come the Dragons" has provided me with two additional stories. Months after that session, perusing my notes, I struck on the title "Dragon in the Land," which had not intrigued me at the time, and wrote and sold a story with the title as the jumping off point. A third title, "Dragon in Amber," inspired yet another story which I am presently completing. Three titles using the same key word is the limit for one writer, lest the similarities confuse his readers, Yet, none of these stories would have existed today had I not begun to tease my mind with this little word game.

Other stories and novels I've generated in this manner include A Werewolf Among Us, Dark ofthe Woods, Island of Shadows, Cold Terror, "To Behold the Sun."

"The Temple of Sorrow," and "The Terrible Weapon."

Science fiction and fantasy, because of their predilection for unusual titles, are the best genres on which to work this word game, though it is applicable to any category and has worked well, for me, with Gothics and suspense novels.

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