How to generate a mass of story title options quickly in Excel

Titling stories is the worst part of the storytelling process.

On a rare occasion, a title comes to me as a popcorn thought (“Pinstripe Alley,” “Bandidos”) with a whole story already contained inside. All I must do is unpack it. Those experiences are when I most believe in God and a benevolent universe.

More often, I will chase down a story and kill, skin, and cook it before I even know its name. After all the fun stuff is done and my creative juices are spent, devising a title is tedious. I want to hunt the next one, not sit and fumble my way through word combinations or hurt my brain trying to conceive of the perfect–yet unique and non-clichéd–phrase that encapsulates the story’s apparent theme. It’s drudgery! Give me my rifle and knife and let me go hunting again!

Hence, I’ve often defaulted to a character name (“Guelph,” “Rastaghosta”) or a basic story summation phrase (“Car Trouble,” “New Neighbor,” “Charlie in the Attic”) and called it done. Ineloquent, sure, but it’s better than “Story #115” (a title I have considered using in the past).

Today I stumbled upon a trick that uses Microsoft Excel to simplify the naming process. It still requires a little brain work, but if I can manage it while impatiently blood-lusting for another story, I think you can, too. Here we go.

First, open an MS Excel worksheet.

Next, fill the first column with words that relate to your story. If stuck, start with the people, places, and things of your story. The following image shows a set of top-of-head words that pertain to my latest story (which I currently call “Belinda the Magnificent”, which is, uh, kinda dumb). If you don’t even have a story yet, but want to generate a compelling title, try this: fill your column with words that share a tone, like positivity, or goodness (sunrise, grandma, kiss, etc.). You’ll see why in the next step. TIP: Make sure to leave a space after each word in your cells.

Next, fill the second column with other words that relate to your story. If stuck, list adjectives and thematic/emotional words that pertain to your story. Don’t fret about repetition–in fact, that might be great. If in the previous step you listed positive words, this time list some negatives (kill, blood, death, doom, etc.). The following image shows another set of words that pertain to my “Belinda” story:

Cool, we are halfway there. Next, copy the following formula and enter it into the first cell of row three:

I wish I could cite the website where this came from, but thanks to whomever at whatever. Here’s a screenshot of that formula being entered, as described. Yes, that’s all in the first cell, column three:

Next, select cell one, column three and drag its bottom right corner down the row. If done correctly, you’ll get something like the next image. Keep dragging that formula down the column until it starts returning blank cells.

That’s it. In my third column, I now have 273 possible titles for my “Belinda” story. Most are stinkers, but I scrolled and found some promising options. E.g., I don’t hate “Haunting Features” as a title, and it does apply to part of the story.

Another benefit of generating such a list is that while I scroll, other title possibilities pop into mind. What about “Parental Features” for my story, which is about someone seeing a parent’s resemblance in his partner but also the qualities of a good parent? Hmm. I like it. Done. On to the next hunt!

Before I go, though: As an exercise to generate a random horror story title, I followed the steps described above, but used NEGATIVE words in the first column and POSITIVE words in the second. I now have 4000 horror movie titles to pick from (a screenshot follows). Some are gawdawful, but some . . . not so bad. Would you attend a movie called “Grim Bondage”? I think you might. And couldn’t “Bad Compassion” have been a Ray Liotta movie from the early aughts?

Anyway, if you try this exercise and find it helpful, please let me know so we can share in your success. Peace ’til next time.


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