What comes first: the title or the story? Until recently I figured this to be a silly question. You know, a rhetorical thing meant to mock the foolish. Of course the story comes first, Goofus! Nobody writes a story based on a title.
Or do they?
I discovered recently that there are authors who do indeed come up with a title first, adding the story afterward. I happened to be snooping around in a writers’ chat room the other day; you know, one of those internet sites where people group together to discuss whatever may be the topic. Anyway, the question was asked: When do you come up with the title, before or after the story is written?
Okay, so call me old fashioned. I’ve always written the story before deciding on a title. It just makes sense to me. I write a story, get the rewrites out of the way, develop a feel for the content, and decide on what to call the work. I’ve never considered starting with a title and crafting a tale according to it. That very idea seems so foreign to my way of thinking.
But here’s the kicker: nearly half of those commenting on that thread claim to start with a title first. How does this work? I mean, do these authors sit around dreaming up titles to turn into stories? I can see this as a practical means in the case of a low-budget film.
“Hey Bob,” Danny said, speaking over the drone of silliness filling the room. “I have a great idea for a movie called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” The title is self-explanatory. There’s little need to plot out something so ridiculous. Just write the script and surely somebody in Hollywood will green light the project.
Books and short stories are different, though. Novels take time in plotting, outlining, and writing. Certainly the title wouldn’t reveal itself until everything is in place, right?
The title for my debut novel Jazz Baby didn’t come about until the week I sent the manuscript to the publisher. Even then it came down to a pair of titles—the loser being the moniker In the Time of Jazz.
The way I see it, until the story is written, nobody, not even the author, fully realizes the personality of the work. Once the story is finished, the plot and all those characters—the story’s personality—shines through, giving the author a clear understanding of what the story is truly about. This is why so many people get nicknames in life. Personality traits that weren’t recognizable at birth take time to show up.
But the thing is, starting with the title apparently works for some authors. So who am I to disparage another writer’s means to an end? Just write. That’s what we authors do, isn’t it? It’s the end result that counts.
And just for the record, the title of my work-in-progress, The Secret Collector, came about at the fifth chapter. Certainly not the beginning, sure, but not the end either.
Just write. A productive writer is a happy writer.