How to Write a Title

According to Harlan Ellison

by Jack Windeyer

painting of a starship captain pondering his next move
Image copyright James Gurney

Tell me, who would you trust to teach you to write titles? For me, I look to those who have done it the most.

With more than 1,700 credits to his name, spanning short stories, essays, screenplays, Harlan Ellison had a hell of a lot of experience. In fact, “Fingerprints on the Sky,” the authorized bibliography of Ellison’s work is 400 pages long and even it can’t claim to be comprehensive.

All this practice paid off; his titles linger in the mind. I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard of some of the better known ones.

But these are not anomalies. If you glance over a list of his works, you’ll find plenty more memorable titles. What do I mean by memorable? Well, a title can be memorable for various reasons.

For instance, many of his short stories feature titles that get your mind turning on the possibilities before you read the first sentence.

None of these “spill the beans.” The stories they title could be about anything. But they do make you wonder how the stories will justify these titles.

Others of his titles linger in your mind because they are visceral, demanding of your attention.

Upsetting, chilling, unnerving. These are reactions that most writers hope to provoke in a reader by the end of the story — Ellison manages it before they’ve turned the first leaf.

Still other Ellison titles give you a glimpse of a soon-to-be-seen character, whether hero or villain.

Some of his titles hint at conflict, which sears them into the reader’s mind:

Love triangles, battles, revenge — all available to anyone who picks up his story collections and flips to the table of contents. And there is a deep link between the strength of a title and the strength of its story.

Ellison uses a handful of words to hint at character or conflict. Which means that how you ought to write a title is the same as how you write the first sentence of your story.