Monday, July 29, 2019

The Power of the Title

When I finished reading Hermann Hesse's delightful Peter Camenzind, one thought kept coming to mind: "With all the lessons and discussion in that story, the best title was the character's name? Seriously?" In fairness, this was Hesse's style and the way of the early 20th century. His other works such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and Gertrud to name but a few were named after the lead character. However, he also titled an anthology, Strange Tales from Another Star, so he did have the creativity. The point is, were the titles used to their best advantage?

Never doubt the power of a good title
Let's face it - those first words need to grab the prospective reader. Whether it's a poem, a short story, a novel, or a strongly worded declaration to King George, that top line can bring in the new readers or send them looking somewhere else. A title is a selling point. It influences the reader from square one. For the beginning author, the title is the most important part they will write (in the era of social media, there's also cover art, but that's another discussion). Once the author has gained a big name and a reputation, the title isn't as important, but we're not there yet.

Even in an era of boring book titles, some authors made theirs stand out. When Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with a very new and innovative style, he gave it an innovative name, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. If he had named it Dupin, after the main character, would it have caught the eye? I doubt it. This title gives us plenty of information in six words, and we know immediately if we want to read it. This story's popularity in effect defined the detective genre, but credit needs to be offered to those six words that drew people to reading the story in the first place.

When we write our story, we should think about what we want to offer the reader at the very beginning. Do we offer a sense of humor and whimsy? Do we suggest the genre? Is the title a question that draws the potential reader in to find the answer? Or is it just odd enough to make someone browsing through Amazon stop and give it a second look? The proposed title for one of my favorite books was, An Inquiry into Values. Did that spark your interest? Didn't think so. However, the novel ended up with the more curious name, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into Values. That made a difference, as it soon hit the New York Times' Bestseller List.

Some genres sell themselves, so the title does not need to appeal to whether it is sci-fi, fiction-fantasy, contemporary. or whatever. At that point, what is the real selling point? Mood and intensity usually come to mind. In sci-fi, things can go in many directions, so if the reader gets a feel for what area they'll be walking into, they'll be more comfortable. Space opera is one thing, dystopian sci-fi is another, and of course there is the tongue-in-cheek talk of how the future will still have very human themes. Think about Douglas Adams' defining work of humor and science-fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Before this was published, or was even a radio show, the proposal was called, The Ends of the Earth. Something about the title didn't match the tone, and the reworks began. The final product gave curious people everything they wanted to know - novelty, sci-fi, and an appeal to the off-beat. Millions of copies later, it looks like Mr. Adams made the right decision.

Does every story need to have the big sell right in the title? Maybe it does, maybe it's not important. The next book I will be reading is Tom Hernandez' The Acorn Wars. It's an exploration into the family dynamic, and maybe a title saying that would've scared readers away. However, a perfect name such as The Acorn Wars is intriguing enough to draw interest, and that's why I will be reading it. (And it's on Kindle soon.)

When you set down and write your next masterpiece, just give a thought to those words that appear on the cover or at the top of the page. Think about what they could do for you. Maybe something amazing pops out, maybe not. The important part is that it's an opportunity, and we should never pass them up.

2 comments:

  1. That's why the title is the last thing with which I deal. Most of the time, it comes to me in the midst of writing, and if it doesn't come naturally, then it feels forced and is not as satisfying.

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  2. Very good decision. When I am writing something, the most important part of that first part is, "Working Title." That reminds me that I can change the title, and there's no shame in that.

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