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B&N Week 140: Titles & Story Names

| August 27, 2013 | 3 Comments


Hello, everyone! There is a Tuesday upon us! I’m hungry, the sun is shining, and I’m hungry. [Is there an echo in here?]

What I want to talk about this week are titles. I know that Tyler James wrote a very nice article about titles, but it’s been a while, and I think it needs to be revisited.

There are basically two different types of titles. Of course, we have the title of the book [which is what we’re going to spend most of our focus on], and then there is the title of the story itself [where we will spend significantly less time.

Titles. I’m going to tell you right now, a title will make you or break you. Whereas Tyler looks at it from one perspective [he tries to go for irony if possible], I want to come at it from another: is your title provocative, or evocative?

Let’s get some definitions in here. gives a definition of provocative as “acting as a stimulus or excitement, esp to anger or sexual desire.” Let’s leave off everything after the comma, and just look at “acting as a stimulus or excitement.”

Your title should provoke some sort of reaction in the reader. That’s part of the goal. I don’t look for irony in my titles. I want to see if they provoke me, stimulate me, or excite me. Basically, a strong reaction. [We’re going to come back to this.]

The next definition to look at is evoke. Again, defines it as “1. to summon or call forth; 2. to call to mind by naming, citing, or suggesting; 3, to create anew, especially by means of the imagination.”

A good title does one of these two things, if not both at the same time.

Here’s the unspoken thing about titles, and that really needs to be examined: comic book titles generally play with words, concepts, or themes, and as such, they rely on the knowledge base of the reader. In order to be provocative or evocative, the title has to remind the reader of something else, and in order to do that, the reader has to be decently read. Not even extremely well read, just decently read. This plays on reader expectations, and it is a powerful ingredient in deciding on a title.

A good title is extremely hard to come by. If it hasn’t already been done by someone else, you have to find out if your title/idea is different enough from anything else so that you don’t run into any legal trouble. It may seem like all the good titles have been taken, but there are lots of great new titles that come out seemingly every month. You just have to put some thought into it.

There are two basic types of comic book titles: character/place titles, and story titles. When I say “character/place,” I’m also talking about teams. [I know you figured that, but I just want to be clear.] Most comics put out by Marvel/DC are going to be about character/places. Generally, the only time they go for story type of titles are when they are doing events.

Superior Spider-Man is, of course, a character/place title, while Trinity War is a story title.

Both of these titles can be considered at least provocative. They give rise to thought experiments. Let’s take a closer look.

Superior Spider-Man. If you don’t know much of anything about the title, the first thing that you ask yourself is “is this a different guy?” Right on top of that, “how is this guy better than the last?” The title provokes questions. You know something about Spider-Man [if not by the comics, then by the cartoons or the four feature films that have been made about him], so you wonder how he’s gotten better. You go pick up the book to find out. Then, after reading the book, you wonder how can he continue to be “superior.” It keeps you reading.

Trinity War also plays with what you already know. Generally, everyone knows about a trinity, the most famous of which being the Holy Trinity. [Generally speaking, whenever someone thinks of a trinity, this is the first one people think of, especially without context. If there is a context, then the Holy Trinity is still thought of first, and then the other trinity is thought of right after.] Within the context of DC comics, the very first trinity [after the Holy] thought of is Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Is the Trinity War about them? It’s an interesting question, and not something to be assumed.

Now, there are times when you’ll have an idea, and you’ll have someone do the story first. Time for a short story.

I was reading something on my phone, going into scientific mysteries, and started doing some very light, preliminary research into The Manhattan Project. I wanted to see the movie, and I wanted to re-watch a documentary I had seen years ago about alternative energy. I didn’t have a title yet, and I only had a glimmer of a story, but I had an idea for a direction that I wanted to go.

Now, I’ve recounted the story about how I had short story entitled Manaday, and how another writer told a story entitled Gunplay that had something of a similar object in their story that was in mine, and how that writer went on to win an award with that story. Things like this happen to me often enough that I feel like I’ve been able to tap into the zeitgeist.

Well, imagine my surprise when, as I’m doing my thinking and getting into my preliminary research, I see that Jonathan Hickman is coming out with a title from Image called…The Manhattan Projects.

I’ve learned to take these things in stride now. It’s a great title [I’m strictly speaking on the name, not the writing, which I’m sure is top notch—I am in awe of Hickman], and if you’re decently read, evokes all kinds of images and ideas of what the story is about.

And best of all, the title is simple. Hickman added a simple “s”, making it plural, which opened up new realms of possibility. [And, yes, I’m still waiting on someone to “steal” my idea about something else. Hopefully, I can get to it before anyone else does.]

There are three key strengths to a title. The first is whether or not it is provocative/evocative, and the second is recognizability, and the third is simplicity.

The first and second rely on the reader, and how much that reader has been exposed to. The Manhattan Projects, Peter Panzerfaust…titles like these rely on the reader being at least passably aware of The Manhattan Project and Peter Pan. But simplicity? That’s something totally different.

Personally, I like titles that are two words or less, or that also have multiple meanings. [I need more time and money. I have three titles that I really, really want to do, one of which has a title that will ensure you’ll at least want to know more. Time and money. Time and money.] The more words you add to a title, the easier it is to lose a reader. Which is easier to remember: BPRD, or the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense? The creators of the Image comic Collider [those of us with a science bent probably evoked the Large Hadron Collider] had to change its name to “Federal Bureau of Physics.” One word [simple], now stretched out to four [not so simple]. While the premise may be much clearer [and thus, simple], the title itself is a mouthful, and absolutely horrible. [And while Collider wasn’t great, it wasn’t horrible as a title, either. This is horrible.]

Like I said, it isn’t easy. Simplicity does not always equal something that is aesthetically pleasing. It can be a challenge.

Now, when it comes to the titles of comics, you also have to remember that this isn’t just going to be in plain text. It has to be provocative/evocative, recognizable, simple, and it also has to have an aesthetically pleasing design for the logo. This brings its own set of problems. Too many words and you can have a crowded cover, or something that is unbalanced, or just plain ugly. Beware the ugly.

All of this has been about the book in and of itself. There’s also something to be said for story titles.

I’ll tell you something: I’m horrible at story names. I write a story, and I’m not worried about its name. I just want to tell the story I want, and if I remember, I’ll try to come up with a name for it when I’m done. I’m horrible at them.

Of course, the name of the story has to describe the overall thrust of the story. Because of the Bible, everyone knows what a story entitled Exodus will mean. However, a story like A Rose For Ecclesiastes? Harder to quantify just by the title itself. It describes the story, but you have to read it in order to really get it.

When it comes to story names, all bets are off. None of the “rules” of title names are relevant or even necessary here. I’d even argue that the opposite is true: simple and recognizable can be seen as trite and lazy. [Even though Exodus may be wholly appropriate for the title of a story, it can still be seen as trite and lazy.]

The amount of words don’t matter here. What matters is that the name of the story is relevant. That’s all that matters. Do readers have to wrap their entire intellect around an obscure reference or quote that you use for a title? They shouldn’t. If they do, then you’re doing it wrong.

Personally, I don’t think most readers care about the name of a story. Sure, they’ll care about the name of an arc, but if it’s an arc, there may be a name of a story within that arc. The name of the arc is something to remember, but the individual name of a story? Most of the time, it’s going to go in one ear and out the other. (Sounds like a cop-out, Steven. You’ve already said you don’t like to come up with names of stories. I think you’re being self-serving.) While that’s possible, I don’t think that’s the case.

Here’s an easy test: name individual stories within a title. No, not the arc, the individual stories. Unless something significant happened in the story, more than likely you won’t remember it. [Unless your name is Mark Waid.]

That’s all I have this week. No homework. Enjoy the break.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

Comments (3)

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  1. Tyler James says:

    Nice article, Steven. Let’s open up the comments here for some feedback on titles that people are working on…so creators, go ahead and post your in-development titles, and we’ll see if Steve, knowing nothing else but the titles, can give us his two cents on those titles off the bat.

    Steve, here are a few titles that may or may not be in the ComixTribe hopper…

    – Cuddlers
    – Chains
    – Wailing Blade
    – Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare
    – Danger Boys

    What say you, good sir?

  2. Thanks, Tyler. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Let’s go through the titles!

    Cuddlers: I like it. Sounds like fun. (And is a bit of a cheat for me, since I know what the title is about. But leaving that aside, it sounds like it could be fun, just from the title itself.)

    Chains: This one is a bit harder. I’m a sword and sandals kinda guy, and that’s what is being evoked for me: Ben Hur, Gladiator, Troy. The good thing, though, is that it’s a single word, and as such, should be pretty easy from a design sense.

    Wailing Blade: I’m envisioning two words, stacked on top of each other. It’s the easiest thing, especially since the first word has seven characters in it, and the W can be kinda large, depending on the font used. The name evokes magic for me, but still swords and sandals. As a title, though, I don’t like it. Simple and direct, yes, but it also doesn’t seem to be imaginative.

    Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare: I’m decently read. Not wide or deep, but decently read. This reminds me a bit of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, where he had Night Mares: female horses that brought bad dreams. So calling this the “loveliest nightmare” kinda falls in line of that for me. Not necessarily an oxymoron in itself, though. Calling it The Friendliest Night Terrors would be more in line with that. Everyone has had nightmares, and they aren’t all that bad. You wake up in a start, possibly sweating. Night terrors? You wake up SCREAMING, and you don’t want to go back to sleep. Calling them friendly seems more like its opposite to me.

    Danger Boys: Immediately, I don’t like it. I have images of Evil Knievel meets The Hardy Boys, but it isn’t in a good way. Now, that being said, I’m also sensing a bit of whimsy (it’s the “boys” part). That bit of whimsy lightens the danger some. Doesn’t make it fun, but it doesn’t make it grim, either. However, I still don’t like it. Even now, I want to shy away from it. Can’t explain it better than that. To me, this is not a good title.

  3. dregj says:

    the oxymoron one was good
    the rest were blah

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