ARE TITLES OF STORIES IMPORTANT?
Oh yes. Which book would you rather read?
Mr Cho Goes to Bed Early
Or one called
Invasion Earth 2020: Only You Can Save The World?
If you collect comic books, chances are the second book will be a more exciting read for you.
But if you like something literary or sophisticated and perhaps a little clever and ironic, you might prefer to the first title.
As a writer, you have to create the right title to hook the right reader.
This is part three of a series. Click here for part one, defining the word “story” and part two, which is about understanding why stories matter, and writing the first line.
Titles are a rather recent invention. Books used to have non-creative descriptive labels, instead. If you look at books which are a few hundred years old, you might find a couple of choices.
One of the Chinese classics is called “Dream of the Red Chamber or the Story of the Stone”: Two titles for the price of one.
When the first modern-style long novels came out in the 1700s, they often were labeled only with the name of the main character: to take three examples, there were books called Pamela, Tristram Shandy, and Clarissa. But if we look up the original title of Clarissa, the full name was actually a long, descriptive sentence:
“Clarissa. Or, The History of a Young Lady; Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life. And Particularly Showing the Distresses that May Attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children In Relation to Marriage.”
From the 1800s onwards, book writers realized that they could use short, snappy titles to indicate themes (“Pride and Prejudice”), create a sense of intrigue (“The Woman in White”), build atmosphere (“Wuthering Heights”) or be poetic (“Flowers in the Mirror”).
A classic American writer named Ford Madox Ford wanted to call his book “The Saddest Story”. The publishers thought no one would buy such a depressing tale and re-titled it “The Good Soldier”.
But I think the publishers were wrong. The line in the book that every reader remembers is the very first line in the book:
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
The fact is, people LIKE sad stories.
But that leads us to a controversial question. Who chooses the title? Is it the writer or the publisher?
In my experience, publishing companies do claim to have power over the title. They make the investment, so they choose the title.
But I think they’re wrong: I believe the title belongs to the writer. The name of the book is actually the first few words of your story.
So if you get a contract to have your book published and the industry executives tell you that they get to choose the name, do stand up for yourself.
The two sides should at least discuss it and negotiate. Usually you’ll end up with something that you both like.
In the past, marketing executives sometimes believed that the public needed to be treated as if it was very stupid.
So, for example, there was a James Bond adventure in which he lost his famous “license to kill”. The movie was originally called “License Revoked”, a short snappy title that introduces people to the story very clearly. You can immediately guess from the two-word title that Bond has lost his job.
But film executives said that the public was too stupid to understand a word such as “revoked” and so changed the title to “License to Kill”.
This was dumb, as the new title no longer said anything about the film to which it was attached. Worse still, it could apply to any James Bond story—except this one.
These days, film executives no longer think movie-goers are dumb. One of the more recent James Bond films was called Quantum of Solace—a completely baffling and meaningless title to most people. Folk still went to see it. (In fact, many more folk went to see it than went to see Licence to Kill.)
Still, there are no real rules about titles, so you can pretty much choose anything that will send a message about your book or film to the reader or viewer. Some people just go for straight labels.
For example, consider the name of the film Snakes On a Plane. That’s not really a title at all: it’s just a label for the plot.
The title often sets the tone of the book. A young woman I know decided to write a book with a very serious, dull, sad, heavy-sounding title, the sort of title that wins literary prizes. She called it “The Inheritance of Loss”. Her book won the Man Booker Prize, which is designed for the highest grade of literary works. It was the right choice for the right book.
Authors serving young people like writing books which combine a name with an item, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Other examples are: “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief”, and “James and the Giant Peach”.
Sometimes a title of a book is so good that it makes the book a bestseller. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a great title, and much more evocative than the story it was attached to.
Many years ago, a book came out called In Praise of Older Women. It was a huge success, I think largely because of the great title, which raised questions in everyone’s mind.
Men of all ages bought it, thinking: It’s a given that young women are attractive but is there something about older women I should know about?
Young women bought it, thinking: So, I am going to get better and better, however wonderful.
Older women bought it, thinking: At last, someone has realized the truth.
(illustration from s robbin: http://srobbin.com/blog/3d-css-book-covers/)