The Nano Title

Robert Swartwood is hosting a big contest to celebrate Hint Fiction’s birthday and keep us excited for Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, which comes out in November from Norton. Incidentally, Amazon has a good price right now for preorder, so you might want to jump in on that deal. But in honor of Hint Fiction—a form in which the title is the linchpin on which the success of an entire piece can rely—let’s discuss the nano title.

The angle for a title (for fiction of any size) is usually a summary or some key/noteworthy words. Perhaps a rephrasing. Moby Dick is about, surprise surprise, Moby Dick (more or less). Most, perhaps even the “good” ones, don”t bring anything new to the table. Fine—but when you write a story that is only 140 characters or 25 words or less, that’s actually pretty inexcusable. You worked hard to cram as much story as you can into a sentence or two, and you’re telling me you couldn’t think of anything else to add? That title could’ve been a whole new element, supported a completely different layer of interpretation. It can do something.

With a novel, titles are often placeholders or descriptors (i.e. The Magician, or something else equally mundane and logical). With micro- and flash-fiction, the usual maxim is that every word counts. That’s actually a lie. There’s plenty of relative fluff even in really compelling stuff. Maybe it counts, but it’s not necessary. But if a title makes up 10-30% of the total word count, it’d better be necessary.

My rule of thumb for a nano title: if the story reads the same way with or without the title, then the title isn’t carrying its weight.

In the best case scenario, the reader feels drawn to come back to the title as a means of tying the experience together. In good Hint Fiction, the twist—if there is one—isn’t at the end: It’s in the title. It’s that last puzzle piece, the one that fell under the couch that you couldn’t find for hours. If the title isn’t conveying some new information (more characterization, plot, setting, location, punchline, backstory, something), then try again. After all, you only had 25 words to tell a complete story (and it could always be a little more complete).  I’ll leave you with a playful example from PicFic’s recent anniversary series.

Except NASA
As the asteroid hits, no one says, “I wish I had spent more time at work.”

Notice that the title (whether you like the story or not) draws the reader’s attention to a completely different aspect of this story. Without the title, it’s a very macro, globalized, everyone-is-the-same story. But the title narrows our focus down to a small group with a very different experience. It asks us to go back and think on it those extra seconds. In other words, the title matters.


Ben 04.23.10 Reply

For further discussion on the importance of a title in nanofiction, read Robert Swartwood’s post: “Just a Hint of a Title.”

India Drummond 04.25.10 Reply

You’ve inspired me to try my own micro-fiction (@ND140) but I already find this hard enough without trying to title it too!

Your work really is great. Thanks so much for sharing it with us of the Twitterverse.

Ben 04.25.10 Reply

Thanks, India! Welcome to the twitter-fiction universe. I’m sure all the brevity and character-wrangling will do good things for your non-tiny writing as well.

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