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Which comes first: Title or Plot?

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  • Which comes first: Title or Plot?

    Something I was wondering on the drive back home this afternoon was, when Mike starts preparing/writing his stories what's the catalyst for the story? Is it the Title that comes first, or do you have a Plot, or Theme, or Idea that you want to explore and the title doesn't come about until later?

    My experience is that I often come up with the Title first and then try to work out what sort of story would come out of that. For example, I might hear something, say, on the radio (as happened tonight on my way home) that strikes me as possibly being a (working) title for a story, and then I try to sketch out the story that goes with it.

    This now strikes me as being a habit I picked up at school, where the English teacher would give the class a selection of titles and we'd have to come up with a story to match one. Back then I wrote some pretty good stories (according to the teachers) - although I now wonder how much was my own inspiration and how much I was ripping off films and other things I was consuming - whereas nowadays I very rarely get past the planning/plotting stage, or else the story just fizzles out unfinished.

    So, I'm starting to think maybe I've got this all the wrong way around. Perhaps the title isn't the most important thing when you start but the actual story itself? Seems like a no-brainer almost, but then it takes a long time for these things to perculate through my noggin some times.

    Cheers,
    David
    _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
    _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
    _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
    _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

  • #2
    I speculate similarly on songs: words first, or music? Which first, and which dominant? I tend to feel that music written to a specific set of words is likely to be somehow less spontaneous, more mechanistic, whilst words written to the music may be compromised by the constrictions of the metre - although of course the alliterative or general onomatopoeic qualities of the words may stimulate a representative reflection in the music, and the restrictions of musical structure on language are no more than those of poetic form, so that's that idea sunk. I can remember being vaguely disappointed to hear that the words to early >ahem< Genesis songs (Perdix hides red-faced under AOR-obfuscating blanket) were written after the music - disappointed, as a lot of the songs were very imaginative little stories, often of a fantastic bent. Not that it matters. It just made me feel that the text was somehow cheapened or made secondary by being added afterwards. Funny, eh?

    As for titles, I know what Demos99 means: On another thread, I was recently blathering on about an old notebook of mine (from when I was 15) that I discovered - it contains the opening few paragraphs of the 'draft' for my O-level Eng Lang 'essay': a rather overwritten but examiner-pleasing splonk about a Mosquito squadron nipping off at dawn to duff up some Nasties befre D-Day: words like 'gimlets', 'nascent' and 'crepuscular' make unwaraantedly frequent appearances. I had no idea what the title of the piece was going to be, but was confident that I could fudge one of the options to fit the tale (I feared possible intra-exam writer's block). As it turned out, I used the given option of 'Dressed to Kill', working in a suitably ominous and dramatic description of the pilots' Irving flying-jackets. Good mental exercise, writing to a title, even if you do 'cheat'...I wonder if The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming (which I slightly surreally bought in an otherwise notably book-free Asian grocers in Clifton, Bristol) was a pre-existing phrase, or added afterwards (I suspect the latter, somehow, although its pleasant tempo and alliteration make you wonder...). Hmmm.

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    • #3
      One of the pieces I wrote for my English exams at school was titled Zachary P. Zebediah and His Magic Boots of Doom, and that was certainly a case of coming up with the title first and then having to figure out what the hell it meant. In the end the "story" was a stream of rather bad jokes, designed to undermine any sense of coherence... it was an anti-story, really. Got a reasonably good grade for it though, even if the teacher did consider it rather a waste of the reader's time.

      I made the mistake of giving my submission for P-X a title which related to the story I thought I was going to write, rather than the one I actually did produce, so now it isn't nearly as relevant as it should be, sadly.

      In general, for scripts and so forth, I base the title on what I think the story or theme will be in the planning stages. I'm not really sure how important a title is though... no doubt the published authors here have a better grasp on such issues! :)
      "That which does not kill us, makes us stranger." - Trevor Goodchild

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      • #4
        Dee's PX1 title fits the story well, and is slightly redolent of The Rockford Files: You'll have to wait to find out what it is, though :D

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        • #5
          There are two well-known examples of authors coming up with a line of the story first...

          1. "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." (first line)

          2. "For the Snark was a Boojum you see." (last line) (OK, this is a poem, not a story... but still.)

          Gr.,
          Ant

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          • #6
            I think I've pretty much always come up with story (song) first. Usually more than one title. Currently I'm wavering between Pete's Rules and The Conditions of the Island for my novel in progress. I also tend to have a liking for Victorian type titles which merely give the name of the protagonist or central event. The Ice Schooner and several other titles were done according to this idea. For me the title has to add a bit to the story, just as sub/headings and chapter titles should do, as in Mother London, where each sub-section makes a narrative reference as well as offering an image. It's the old NW training, trying to pack as much narrative into the page as possible... :)

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            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
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            • #7
              When I corresponded heavily in pen-&-biro and snail mail during my sojourn at the University of Rain & Scrumpy*, I remember that a friend and I started to use a style wherein we ran a 'subplot' around the edge of the main text: ie, a 'band' of text running around the margins and header/ footer, about three lines deep, and going from page to page. The main parts of the letter were usually an extended, verbose narrative, and the 'ring-text' formed an aside, or a story-within-a-story, somewhat after the style of that odd chappie who did a load of apparently part-true, part-complete fiction pulpy war 'novels', Sven Hassel (whom we both, sad to relate, had read). I like the use of space and 'conventional' 'regions' of the page being utilised in that NW way: footnotes, headers, titles: 'concrete poetry' concepts. In PX1, I've tried to maker slight alterations to the layout of text (using the same font, etc) to reflect the piece: eg, paragraph spacing, indent depth, that sort of thing. In fact, there are NO typos at all in PX1 - anything that looks like a typo is, in fact, an experimental form uf gramma oar spling. :roll:
              *Bristol

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              • #8
                Think of those Henry James 'sketches', which were the novels in rough form as try-outs before he wrote the actual one. I suspect he picked HIS titles afterwards, too... :D

                Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

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                • #9
                  It would be interesting to know Mike whether you have a firm preference for books and stories that have appeared under different titles e.g. both The Shores Of Death and The Twilight Man are evocative titles for the same book. On the other hand Mad God's Amulet sounds better to me than the blander-sounding Sorcerer's Amulet. Presumably some of these are (or were) publisher-imposed?
                  'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

                  Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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                  • #10
                    One mustn't forget the commercial aspect of titles (and authors' names): I mean something like:

                    THE SHANGHAI PROTOCOL

                    by Angelina
                    BUM

                    is likely to sell a few more copies at the old aeroport bookstand than:

                    The Oscillatory Predicament of Englebert Stump(Book IV)

                    by Terence Cauliflower.

                    Partly because of the former's embossed, gold-foil titular potential (add exploding Russian twin-jet fighter plus shadowy naked lady to enhance).

                    Funny, eh?

                    'Course, Mike's ahead with the well-balanced and alliterative Michael Moorcock thing, let alone groovy titles like 'The Final Programme' and 'Stormbringer'. I mean...

                    'Trouble in the Mesozoic' by Darren R Partridge sounds a bit weedy don't it?

                    How about:

                    'Death Sex Explosion' by Richard JAY?

                    That'll do. Richard Jay.

                    Oooh. It's too hot in here.

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                    • #11
                      I'm fairly sure that Henry James arrived at his titles after the fact. The titles are descriptive (Portrait of a Lady), emblematic (Washington Square, The Aspern Papers), ironic (The Ambassadors, The Sacred Fount), or symbolic (The Wings of the Dove) as suited his purpose and conception.

                      Still, that's not the only way to do it. I recall reading an essay years ago where Harlan Ellison said that the title "Pennies for a Dead Man's Eyes" was a title to which he had tried attaching stories at times before he arrived at the one he liked. The story "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" is completely unrelated to a teleplay he wrote back in the late '60s of the same name; apparently, he liked the title. Something similar happened with a collaborative story he wrote with Ed Bryant in the '70s, whose title he later used for a novella: "Mefisto in Onyx."

                      My suspicion is that he makes up titles to some degree independent of stories, and sort of keeps a mental catalogue, from which he may select.

                      Then, of course, there are the titles that were chosen by the editor, not the writer. Sometimes this is an impertinence, but sometimes, the writer has a hard time inventing a suitable title, and an editor's help could be valuable. Fred Pohl "extracted" a lot of the titles for Cordwainer Smith's stories from the text itself (e.g., "Think Blue, Count Two").

                      Clearly, titles and stories are two different topics, which may or may not be linked in an obvious way, depending on the writer.

                      Your kilometrage will vary.

                      LSN

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                      • #12
                        Did Pohl really come up with some of those Corwainer Smoth titles? I didn't know that. They are brilliant, and are what attracted me to his fiction in the first place - The Dead Lady Of Clown Town, A Planet Named Shayol, Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, I could go on...
                        'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

                        Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Aral Vilsn
                          Did Pohl really come up with some of those Cordwainer Smith titles? I didn't know that. They are brilliant, and are what attracted me to his fiction in the first place - The Dead Lady Of Clown Town, A Planet Named Shayol, Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, I could go on...
                          In fact, Pohl "extracted" quite a number of the titles -- most of the ones you listed, for example. (In a few cases, I'm not sure.)

                          LSN

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                          • #14
                            Whenever I write, which isn't often, I think title always seems to come somewhere in the middle or last, but occasionally first.

                            The Oscillatory Predicament of Englebert Stump sounds like a good read, ;)

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                            • #15
                              There you go! A story challenge title. 3,000 words maximum, winner gets in PX2.... :D

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