Getting your story written and finished is one thing, but no story is complete without an attention-grabbing title.
Just like the opening hook of the novel – those first few sentences that are designed to lure your reader into your story – the title also plays an important part in this process.
Not only should the calibre of your writing sell your talent to prospective agents and publishers, but the piece-de-résistance should be a catchy, well thought out title, because this is also selling the writer to the publisher.
In fact the title of your story or novel is the very first thing the agent or editor will see, and first impressions always count. The idea is to prod and arouse their curiosity, to make them want to read your novel. An eye-catching title is a useful self-marketing tool. You are not just selling your novel; you are selling the next novel and the one after that. You are selling the whole package.
If you look at some of the titles of bestselling novels over the years, many of them lure or intrigue the reader, or simply spark curiosity. Think Catcher in the Rye, Under Milk Wood, Mercury Rising, To Kill a Mockingbird, Far from the Maddening Crowd…they’re all interesting titles.
They provoke interest. If we re-imagined some famous titles that were less provocative, would they have the same effect? Would the ‘Mangy Mutt on the Moors’ make you want to buy this book? Probably not. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is much better.
What about ‘Caught In A No-Win Situation’? Intriguing perhaps, but not exactly exciting. Instead, ‘Catch-22’ grabs the attention superbly.
There are, of course, book titles that have no particular relevance to the content of the novel. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for instance, bears no apparent relation to what happens in the story. Neither does ‘The Naked Lunch’. There are no hard or fast rules about this. It’s up to the writer what he or she wants to call their work, so long as the title sparks enough interest in the first place.
On the whole, writers like to hint with their book title to what the story is about. Sometimes this might be overt, i.e. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, or the title might be more subtle.
Some titles might have a double meaning. Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ is a name of a character within the book, but it also conveys the mood and feeling of the story. The main character’s life is made a misery, so the title has a double meaning.
‘A Farewell to Arms’ in a literal sense may mean saying farewell to arms (i.e. saying goodbye to war) but losing loved ones (lovers and friends) within the story is also a farewell to the arms of those loved and lost. Again, the title has a double meaning.
Other titles might be more cryptic. ‘The Hunt for Red October’ intrigues us. ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ is a fantastic title and conjures all sorts of imagery. They are evocative and more than likely we’d take a peep at the first page.
Many book titles start out differently to the finished product. That’s because the writer has put some thought into what the story is about and what it means and has then come up with the best title to show this.
And although there is nothing wrong with starting a title with ‘The…’ (sometimes it is needed), writers should try to think of alternatives, if only to be a little different and fresh.
Writers should also make sure the title isn’t a cliché, or that it doesn’t end up sounding cheesy or contrived - the kind that usually accompany badly made TV films, for example, ‘Deadly Desire’ or ‘Doomed Attraction’ etc. A terrible title can put an editor off. Also, a terrible title might make the reader think the story is just as bad, too.
There are also the kinds of titles that relate to the content but don’t actually give anything away. ‘Jaws’ gives us an idea of what the story might be about. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is another. What about ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’? or ‘As I lay Dying’? These titles hint at what the story might entail, but they don’t give much away.
An eye catching title is not always easy, either. Usually, the harder we think about them, the less likely we are of thinking one up. Sometimes they just come naturally. Just like writing the novel itself, writers should take their time to come up with the best title for it.
But the one thing you will notice about all these titles is that they are catchy and they hook you. Whether simple one word titles, or longer ones, the writers/editors have thought hard about them, and they’ve done the job of luring the reader to pick up the book and read the first page.
And that’s because there is more to a title than meets the eye.
Next week: ‘Moving the story forward’ explained