A story by any other name

Peter Jackson has changed the title of the third Hobbit film from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. So what, many might say. After all, isn’t this just marketing?

No. The title of a story matters. It sets the tone. It prepares your expectations. It says something about what you’re about to see. It’s a part of how you tell the story.

'I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.'
‘I was blond and clean shaven when I started watching this film.’

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story about the military, about cold war style spy shenanigans, about people frozen in time. The name sets the tone perfectly.

The Book With No Name is a story about wise-cracking criminals and chancers, with a supernatural element thrown in. The attempt of the title to evoke something mysterious mis-sells the book, sets false expectations and generally doesn’t work.

Jackson knows what he’s doing. You might not agree with his approach to the Hobbit movies, but there’s no doubting that he’s a very capable film-maker. The change of name shows a shift in focus to epic warfare, away from the whimsy that lay at the heart of the original book. Sure, the battle was part of that story, but it was the culmination of a journey towards grandeur, not the focus of the story.

Jackson’s gone big with these films, and he’s clearly setting out his stall in re-naming the film. Personally, I think that turning the Hobbit into a multi-film epic in the style of The Lord of the Rings is a mistake, but given what he’s doing the re-naming is clearly the right choice.

Anybody got any good examples of stories with perfect names, or terribly misleading ones? I’m sure there are better examples out there than the first two that popped into my head.

All in the name

Having done a thousand words of emotional and descriptive edits yesterday, I now have a story fit for reading, in all but one key regard – the title.

Titles are important. They give a first impression of the story, set readers’ expectations, can make the difference in whether someone picks up your work.

They become more important when you’re working with a smaller number of words. You can see this at its most extreme with drabbles, stories of exactly a hundred words. There, the title becomes a cheat, a way of adding words to your story, of clarifying theme or situation in ways you couldn’t fit into the text. But this also extends to other stories. The title can focus the reading experience, highlighting themes, indicating genre, making the reader pay attention when the title phrase appears within the story.

For me, this isn’t always a problem. Some of my stories, in fact some of my favourites, were inspired or shaped by a  phrase that became the title. This applies to both the stories I have in Ann VanderMeer’s steampunk collections. ‘The Cast-Iron Kid’ took its title from a character and flagged up its mixed genres, steampunk and western. ‘Urban Drift’ calls attention both to the sculpture around which the plot revolves and the mobile city setting, as well as referring to the sense of purposelessness urban alienation can trigger, against which background the protagonist’s own purpose is tested.

For the story I’ve just finished revising, set in a steampunk prison, I don’t have such an obvious title. The original inspiration, the panopticon and panopticism, is no longer central, and another easy label hasn’t bubbled up to replace it. I’m not going to let this stop me sending it out. I’m sure that today I can find a title that will do, given the alternative of sitting indefinitely on my story. But it’s just not the same.

Titles matter. And for me, the lesson this time is to think about them as I go along, not just wait for the end.