Writing a title for a flash fiction or nonfiction piece is like dipping your oar into the roaring water while whitewater rafting.
That oar stroke had better do some major work. The flash title is the oar that steers your little canoe past the rocks. Or the fan the fan dancer waves to suggest how she is going to reveal her body, or that teases you while subverting your expectations.
Titles in any work should torque the meaning of the story or essay you’re writing, add something, point into the work, but never explain it. This is especially true in the short space of flash. Flash titles can offer a suggestion for how to read the work they lead into, and also complicate that reading as you move into the piece. Titles should offer a mystery and a hint of a key.
Let’s look at some wonderful titles.
A. Papatya Bucak’s title “I Cannot Explain My Fear,” draws us in because it offers two mysteries: the mystery of the fear (why is there fear? What might it be?) and the mystery of the speaker being helpless to explain it. Fear is a state we generally can explain better than most: public speaking; snakes; showing up at your job in your pajamas, a recurring dream for me and more than one other person I know. The key word is “explain”: this speaker wants to explain the fear.
Bucak opens her flash essay this way: “Fear of bears, fear of ladders, fear of freezing.” The title has, at this moment, given us a misdirection: she can explain her fear, quite specifically. We must read on, to understand when that mysterious title will chime with the essay. By the end of the piece, we learn what Bucak is not afraid of, including being alone and words. She never returns to the idea of explaining her fear, but the title points us to a reading of the essay—that fear and lack of fear jostle together inside of us, particular and inexplicable.
In Pamela Painter’s flash fiction “Letting Go,” the speaker roams the Grand Canyon thinking of her ex (lover? husband?) when a couple asks her to take their photograph. As she takes the picture, the couple falls backward. At the end, the speaker leaves her phone with their photo behind on a wooden bench, “evidence the three of us were here.” The only connection to the title in the story is the speaker’s ex telling her that “sometimes you have to let things go.” The title lends the story a richness, a suggestion that the speaker’s witnessing the deaths and leaving behind the photo bespeaks a letting go of the ex, perhaps a suggestion that she and the couple have all let go of the world somehow.
With these examples in mind, let’s look at five ways to create an excellent title for your flash fiction or nonfiction.
- Your title shouldn’t sum up or describe your piece.
It should never merely reproduce what’s already there. Let it offer its own flash of illumination and transfigure the story.
- Study flash titles that you love.
What do these add to the flash fiction or nonfiction? Where is the key and where is the mystery?
- To understand a wonderful title, consider it carefully before you read the work.
Jot down the suggestions and expectations set up by the title. How does the work fulfill these, or subvert them? Then read the piece and try to forget the title. Finally, look at them together. How would you read this piece differently without the title?
- Think of the title as its own little poem or micro essay.
What linguistic and musical interest does it offer on its own? What is its key image or little story, as in “I Cannot Explain My Fear”?
- If you are concerned your piece may veer too strongly in a certain direction, use your title as a corrective, as that oar dipped into the water to steer your craft around the rocks.
If you worry you may have wandered too far in the direction of the over-dramatic or the sentimental, don’t just revise (though you should always do that) but think of your title as a corrective. If your piece’s tone is singular, create a title that is tonally different.
If you want to learn more about elements of flash, come to my Hugo House class on flash nonfiction, The Heart of the Matter. We’ll discuss great titling and other key elements of flash.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s Make Me a Mother, ranked a Top Ten Book of the Year by Image journal, was published by W.W. Norton. A digital chapbook, Curious Atoms: A History with Physics, was published by Essay Press in May 2016. She is also author of Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, the novella Stolen Moments, and four books of poetry. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science Book of the Year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, an Oprah Bookshelf pick, a Pushcart prize, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Orion, the New Republic, and many anthologies. Her work has been translated into Korean, Dutch, and Italian and distributed internationally. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, and is editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review.