Tuesday, March 4, 2014
There is one part of a book which every reader always reads first and will read even if he doesn’t read the rest of the book. It is understandable therefore that care should be taken when writing this part, since it will go much farther and reach more people than the rest of the book will. However, this can be the hardest part of the book to write. Have you ever tried to sum up a story in one sentence? One word, even? That is the hefty task assigned to every writer when it comes to creating a title. The title page is the book’s advertisement—often the only advertisement the average person will ever read—and thus the success of the work depends in a great measure on its title. It is a common aspiration among writers to create the ultimate title: a title that catches the eye, piques the curiosity, and fires the imagination. But how does one choose a good title? First of all, there are some pitfalls to avoid. What Not To Do: a Novel As the heading indicates, when writing fiction, subtitles, if used, should be chosen with care. It is ill-advised to use the ubiquitous and unnecessary subtitle ‘a novel,’ as it is almost always obvious that the book in question is a novel. In the rare instance where a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction bear the same title, it may be pardonable to subtitle the fictional work ‘the novel.’ In all other cases we recommend avoiding the popular phrase as merely an attempt to add superfluous material to the title page. Any subtitle for a fictional work is usually unnecessary, unless the historical content of the book is of more importance than the story itself, as in The Dark Year of Dundee: a Tale of the Scottish Reformation; but such subtitles often sound clumsy or pedantic and can achieve the opposite of their object—that of interesting the reader in the book. A second consideration is length. Before the advent of dust cover summaries such titles as the original form of Robinson Crusoe (The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates) would be useful to the reader, but few now desire such an in-depth exposition on the front cover of a book. The one word title has become vastly popular of late, especially in film, and this type can be effective (Kidnapped!, Stormbreaker, Ulysses) and has the added advantage of being easy to say, but quite often this type of title sounds ambiguous or inane (Wicked, Brave, Up) and often conveys no useful information about the story. Some rivalry in creating the shortest title has resulted in several even less informative examples (We, It, Be), and a large portion of the alphabet has been converted into one-letter titles (E, K, M). However absurd these examples, one should not swing to the other extreme of wordy titles. Such titles as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day are tiresome to repeat and difficult to abbreviate. The generally accepted length falls somewhere between the two extremes—probably between one and seven words. A personal preference of the editors of this periodical is that a title be subtle. Too much explanation in the story itself of why the author chose that name for his book is slightly tedious and sometimes annoying to the reader (viz. The Catcher in the Rye). Until a book is completed and actually waiting at the publishers to be printed, no title at all is better than a bad title or a second rate title, and the reason is simple: names stick. To give a character a name one does not really like is a dangerous business because changing a character’s name later may change the character’s personality as well. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of a story. If its name changes, the story itself can take on a different aspect. Therefore, avoid rechristening a story half-way through. Types of Titles Many writers (including the authors of this article) keep lists of splendid titles just waiting for books to be written for them, and title collection is a helpful pursuit when it comes to finding a name for one’s own book. The most common types of titles are probably ‘the’ and ‘a’ titles. Most often this type of title points out the main idea or is otherwise generally descriptive of the story (The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, The Pilgrim’s Progress, A Little Princess). ‘And’ titles are also common and can be very effective when the conjunction joins two similar ideas (Pride and Prejudice), connected ideas (Crime and Punishment, Decline and Fall), or opposing ideas (War and Peace, The Red and the Black). Another word commonly found linking other words in titles is ‘of,’ which generally introduces added description (Chariots of Fire, Lord of the Flies, The Red Badge of Courage, Treasures of the Snow). Many famous titles are allusions to or are even taken straight from other literary works, either because the words sound well together (Arms and the Man, The Grapes of Wrath, The Other Side of Silence, The Waste Land) or because they carry a subtle meaning from their context (Dulce et Decorum Est, By Searching, This Side of Paradise, The Quality of Mercy, Many Waters). The significance of numbers, even in literature, is evinced by the multitude of familiar titles that incorporate them. Few titles are made up of only numbers (1984 being a notable exception), but numbers figure prominently in works from A Thousand and One Nights to Fahrenheit 451. Preferences seem to alternate between using numerals and spelling out (The 39 Steps, Catch-22, Stalag 17, Twelve O’clock High, The Three Musketeers, After Twenty Years, A Tale of Two Cities, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), though many titles appear in either format. Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, and Bleak House are all examples of books named after important places in the story. Titles taken from common expressions can be witty and catchy (As I Was Saying, Time and Time Again, Our Mutual Friend). Surprisingly, there are quite a few titles which include ‘the man,’ such as The Man Who Would Be King, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Invisible Man, The Man in the Brown Suit, The Old Man and the Sea, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Everlasting Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and the list grows longer if one includes variants, such as The Girl in the Blue Beret, The Little Engine That Could, The Cat Who Came for Christmas… Should you happen to have more than one title for your book and cannot choose between them, the ‘or,’ title structure may be utilised, as in Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress, and The Pirates of Penzance; or, a Slave of Duty. However, bear in mind that the secondary title is rarely as well known as the primary title. For those authors who could not think of a suitable title, there is an old standby. Many books are simply named after the main, or an important, character, as is the case with David Copperfield, Daniel Deronda, Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre, and Ivanhoe. This solution, however, does not tend to catch the reader’s interest unless the name is interesting or unusual, such as Rob Roy, Gunga Din, or Ben Hur. The Disappointing Title Since the main purpose of the title is to advertise the book, we do not recommend the last resort. The best titles tell something important about the book and convey a feel of what the story will be about. If a title cannot completely sum up the gist of the story, it can at least give a basic idea of the mood and genre of the book and hopefully include some sense of what the book is about. One caveat we would mention is the mistake of giving a splendid title to a disappointing book. Although it is also a mistake to give a good book a poor title, readers will forgive the author much more readily than they will if he puts a good title—a splendid, glorious title that presents to the mind of the eager reader innumerable possibilities for inspiring, breathtaking stories—on the cover of a disappointing book. For instance, there is All the King’s Men, which is set in the U.S. and has little to do with either kings or their men. Another example is William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury, the title of which sounds to the uninitiated indicative of battle and strife. The story however does not take place during a war at all. Deeper insight would reveal that the title is taken from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: ...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…. And in this context one sees the suitability of the choice (although Shakespeare’s lines refer to life in general and not, as would appear, to Faulkner’s novel specifically). (Yet another example of Faulkner’s propensity for choosing disappointing titles is his novel As I Lay Dying, the title of which leads the sanguine reader to expect, for once, a happy ending to a Faulkner story, but is in actuality not about the author’s death at all.) Other authors choose their titles to be deliberately misleading and thus introduce an element of irony into the story, as in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, or Ernest Hemingway’s depressing tale, The Sun Also Rises. But unless a title serves a purpose in misrepresenting a book, it creates a sense of imbalance and incompleteness by doing so. In Louis Tracy’s adventure novel, A Son of the Immortals, the young protagonist, the son of a dethroned prince, returns to his small Balkan country to restore order and become its crowned monarch. However, when he finds his task difficult and his way barred to marrying the girl of his choice, he chooses to abdicate (learning just prior to his decision that he is not actually the son of a prince but of an American prospector). He marries and settles in America and in a mind-numbing denouement, discusses the merits and comparative safety of a private individual’s life as opposed to a monarch’s. In this example the end of the story differs drastically from the premise of the title. Finding the Fitting Title The most important role of a title is to catch the potential reader’s interest. Titles of non-fictional works often focus on this aspect because it is often more difficult to induce someone to read them. Effective non-fiction titles often incorporate lists (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), questions (What’s Wrong with the World?, How Do You Kill Eleven Million People?), or how-to statements (How to Win Friends and Influence People, How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig). The same principle applies to works of fiction—the title must catch the reader’s interest and make him want to read the book. How-to titles are rarely interesting enough for fiction (a rare exception is How to Train Your Dragon), but lists (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and questions (Can You Forgive Her?) are both used occasionally. Fiction titles more often resort to other methods to attract readers, however. The title The Light That Failed is effective because it conveys a sense of poetry as well as tragedy, and at the same time makes the reader want to find out what was the light that failed. Fiction titles should also incorporate some important element of the story (in the foregoing example, the title refers to the loss of the protagonist’s eyesight, which is the event round which the story turns). To Kill a Mockingbird, like How Green Was My Valley, is a title taken from a sentence in the story itself. Though neither title tells much about its story, both give a fair idea of their stories’ moods and themes. Both lines are taken from important points in the story. A rare but effective technique is to create a title that is a clue to the solution of the story, as in Oscar Wilde’s celebrated play The Importance of Being Earnest. It is only when the reader (or viewer) comes to the end of the play that he realises the significance of the title. An author cannot always depend on reviews, publicity, or jacket illustrations for the success of his novel. An interesting title is often the first thing that causes a reader to pull a book from the shelf. A good title is a good advertisement. An advertisement should not be boring, or convey a false impression of the product; nor should it be of the confusing class of advertisements which have nothing at all to do with what they advertise. It should be concise but descriptive, inventive but easy to remember, preferably pronounceable (unlike Les Misèrables), perhaps witty or poetic, but most importantly, interesting.