Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One way of looking at common titles

Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld magazine put together a list of the most common story titles in their submissions. It's an interesting list for that reason alone: even the most popular title ("Dust") shows up only 18 times out of 50k. The tenth most popular titles--of which there are several--show up 8 times each.

But we could also break down the list into other groups, according to structural or semiotic lines. For instance, "The " + noun titles account for 139 of the top stories. Then there's also concrete noun titles, like "Dust" and "Hero"; more abstract nouns, like "Voices" and "Memories." There are clumps of home-related titles ("Going Home", "Home") and clumps of boundary-related titles ("The Wall," "The End"). There are adjectives and nouns and verbs.

Probably these titles are so simple because only a simple title could be so frequently reused. I mean, "Dust" is a title I could probably use for some of my stories. (And as some commenters noted, some great stories have been written with that name.) You're not going to find a lot of stories titled, '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman.'

But I'm especially interested in that "The " + noun form:

The Gift
The Box
The Hunt
The End
The Visit
The Collector
The Wall
The Prisoner
The Machine 
The Tower
The Dark
The Door
The Choice
The Fall

There's that "The" that makes a definite moment out of something wide open. This isn't the story of just any old visit--this is "The Visit." We're not just talking about "A" machine, but "The" machine--the machine that we've heard so much about or that plays such a bit role in our life.

It reminds me of something Ray Bradbury wrote about his own process, which involved lists just like this of nouns that somehow captured his attention. These weren't special, strange nouns, but everyday nouns, like "baby." (That story became "The Small Assassin.")

So what is it about nouns that seems to inspire some writers?

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