What’s in a title?


As a writer — particularly a short story writer — one of the most difficult parts of creating a story is actually naming the damn thing.

So many works-in-progress and, yes, the neglected hulks of abandoned half-completed tales, bear names such as “Black Hole Story” and “Horror #17”. Not terribly exciting, I know. Usually once the beast is completed, a title does present itself, and there are the rare gems where the title falls into place during the creation process.

But no, there is a distinct art to titles, and it’s an art which I’m very much an admirer of. Not simply in fiction — though I will say that I have particular love for Heinlein’s time-travel classic “All You Zombies”, and the Hugo-nominated “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick — but actually I find that the titles of TV series episodes are where some of the best work is to be found.

TV episodes are similar in many ways to short stories. Each one has to be a self-contained story, fitting into the larger picture whilst not losing its own individual appeal. The title therefore has to tread a tightrope of not giving the game away, at the same time as being fitted to the particular episode like a glove to a hand.

One of the best that I’ve seen recently has to be Breaking Bad. They were, like the (majority) of the series itself, lovingly scuplted. The one which most stood out for me was the third-from-last episode “Ozymandius”. Now, I love the Shelly poem it is taken from, and am not above referencing it myself *ahem*. Given that the episode is the one where Walt’s plots and plans and his very life start to career down the path of irredeemability.

Star Trek, I have to admit, isn’t consistently great at this. Some of the episode titles (I’m looking at you, finale of Star Trek: Voyager — “Endgame”) are just stating the obvious, whilst others feel downright lazy. But occasionally it does get it very right. “In the Pale Moonlight” is hands down my favourite Star Trek episode of all time, and the title lives up to it. The obscure Batman reference, and the undertones of the darker side of the noble Federation at war, only add to the beauty of the overall piece.

But actually, the best episode titles are actually the work of obscure SF show Andromeda. Created from Gene Roddenberry’s notes*, this was essentially Hercules in space. But that undervalues it. Robert Hewitt Wolfe was a titan of a writer, who weaved a living and breathing world around the cast and story. And its episode titles were poetry. Quiet literally, sometimes. Season 1 finale “Its Hour Come Round At Last” references another of my favourite poems, fitting perfectly the stepping up of the threat and challenge, and a great monster rearing its head.

But my favourite, one which chills me with its perfection, is the Andromeda third season finale “Shadows Cast by a Final Salute”. Firstly, it rolls like poetry off the tongue. Secondly, for an episode which sees a member of the crew turn their coat, it fits — as I say — like a glove.

The reason that titles are so difficult is that they are integral. They aren’t — or shouldn’t be — an afterthought, but rather the bookends of a story. Done right they are every bit as powerful as the story itself, and provide a pedastal for it to reach even greater heights.

And after looking at it like that, I don’t feel quite so bad struggling so much on them.

*What this actually means is open to interpretation.

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