Saturday, 5 May 2012

Why Titles Matter


There are several factors that make us choose a novel from the endless books available to us.  One factor is the cover – its job is to initially entice the reader’s eye.  Then there is the blurb – the couple of lines on the front cover or the back that hook you.  Then of course, there is the title.
But a title isn’t just there to tell your audience what your story is called. Titles have a number of uses which a writer should always take advantage of, and titles matter - they are an integral factor when getting your work noticed by agents and editors.
Book and story titles act as a lure.  Great titles always grab our attention – think To Kill a Mockingbird. Or A Clockwork Orange.  They tempt us to want to know what the story is about; there is a sense of intrigue and fascination that entices us.

But what if they were called Scout and Jem’s Adventure?  Or The Droogs?  Would they lure us in the same way?  Probably not.  They certainly wouldn’t have the same allure.  If anything, they would seem rather boring by comparison.
Where novels are concerned, you have spent months or years putting effort into making it the best you can, so a lame title will not do your story any justice.  You should be making a statement with the title you choose, so where possible, make your titles interesting, provocative.  Try to avoid using ‘The’.  i.e The Teacher, The Street, The Cornfield etc.  It’s one of those words that just make a story title that little bit staid and boring, and sometimes quite corny and clichéd.  Think dynamically when it comes to your titles; make your work stand out.

Some of the best novels don’t have ‘The’ in the title, and this works well, for instance Misery, Moby Dick, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, and so on.  Of course, that is not to say that some great titles do have ‘The’ in the title, like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, but the idea is to be different with your titles, and these classic titles use ‘The’ to their advantage by not giving away too much of the story content.
That brings us to this very consideration: titles often give the story away before the reader has even read the first line.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing, except that ‘Granny’s Day Out’ or tells the reader what the story is about without reading a single line of the story. 

The idea with genre fiction is to keep the reader guessing all the time, to keep them interested, keep them fascinated.  If you tell them in the title what it’s about, more often than not, you lose some of that allure and impact.
A title can hint at the story, but the idea is not to give too much away so that it invites the reader to step into your fictional world, it lures them enough to want to become involved with the story.

Titles also often deliberately mislead the reader. This is an effective tool employed by writers, and is designed to tease the reader into thinking they know what the story is about, but it turns out to be something completely different.
Think Gone With the Wind or Where Angels Fear to Tread.

When I wrote Under a Veil of Red (see cover image top right) for the February Femmes Fatales showcase, I wanted to convey several things with the title.  It is a story about the underlying prejudice that fuels the pursuit of a victim.  I could have called it ‘The Chase’. Or ‘The Runaway,’ or ‘The Pursuit’.  But none of these titles are interesting, and they tell the reader what it’s about. 
The Veil of the title suggests a shroud, a cover of some sort.  The Red is a symbolic gesture – the colour of blood, which appears in the story.  Under a Veil of Red intrigues but gives nothing away in terms of the story’s content.

Another short story, ‘A Stain on the Heart’, published in the US, deals with intolerance and injustice set during World War 2.  The title is twofold.  It’s hinting at what the story might be about, without giving too much away, and without even telling the reader it’s set during the war, but it’s also informing the reader of nature of the content, and the key words here are ‘Stain’ and ‘Heart’.
So, when it comes to titles, think about what your story is about, what it is trying to say. Coming up with great titles isn’t easy, so think about the story. What is its message?  How does it relate to your reader?  How can you entice them?

Titles do more than just tell your reader what the name of your story is.

·         Grab the reader’s attention – use a catchy title
·         Hint at the story – tease the reader
·         Don’t give too much away in the title if you can – keep them guessing
·         Deliberately mislead the reader with your title
·         Try to avoid using ‘The’ too much
·         Avoid corny or clichéd titles
Effective, provocative and interesting titles can be the difference between agents/publishers being interested in your story, or not.

Next week: Chapter and novel lengths.

4 comments:

  1. I would urge anyone who struggles with titles to have a look at Lisa Ricard Claro's meme 'Book Blurb Friday' in which she posts a photo and asks that you imagine it's a book cover and write an enticing blurb in 150 words - over the past year I have found it excellent practice for both blurb and title. (http://www.writinginthebuff.net/ - but due to bereavement it is on hiatus at present)

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  2. Great post A.J. Titles are so important. I'm writing a story for P.Friend about a piano, and had a page full of possible titles today, not sure if any are right yet!!!

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    1. I find titles can sometimes be easy...then at other times incredibly difficult! But you always know when you have the right one; it seems to gel.

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  3. Interesting that you mention the use of "the" in titles. Nearly all of Robert Ludlum's novels included this word. He's probably the only author I know of who did it. I like the bit about keeping the title mysterious. Books like that have grabbed my attention many times.

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