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Lux Desiderata of Titling

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Apr. 29th, 2007 | 05:10 pm

Titles can benefit a story in as many as five meaningful ways, only one of which is based on having read the story already. Therefore it tends to be a bad idea to use a title that becomes interesting only after reading the story (e.g. "Charlie"). In no particular order, titles can (and arguably should):

1. Intrigue someone into being curious about the story ("Something Wicked This Way Comes," The Da Vinci Code).

2. Give the reader an immediate and accurate sense of what kind of story is coming in terms of genre, mood etc. (I, Robot, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

3. Serve as an easily-remembered and easily-communicated label for the book when telling others about it (Dune, The Hobbit). An easily-communicated title is easy to remember, spell, and say, and is strongly connected to the story itself. It stands out: you remember it specifically rather than something like it.

4. Lend a sense of authority or poetry ("To the East, a Bright Star," The Once and Future King).

5. Be unlikely to be confused with other titles. This particularly makes one-word titles problematic unless the word is extremely unusual (Xenocide).

Caveats:

Ÿ         These rules don't apply in the same way to movies, in part because there are only a very limited number of movies out at a given time and most interested consumers are exposed to a poster and/or trailer for each, making the title less important except for item #3.

Ÿ         Also, many very successful books have "broken" these rules, because of course the book itself is more important than the title.

Ÿ         And of course it's debatable how many people will actually be influenced in any way by a title if they don't have another recommendation for the book. That said, some readers are intrigued by titles, and a title can be the difference between your book being looked at on a shelf or within online search results or disregarded with the all the other books the reader has never heard of.

 

Many writers, from beginners to established pros, seem to want to come up with titles that cleverly cap off or sum up the story. They'll write a story about a magical cape and call it "The Cape," or a story in which the secret is that the protagonist is really dead and call it "Unsettled." These types of titles often lose the opportunity to ensnare the reader's interest and advertise what they're about.

Titles are much more important for books than for short stories, since a person who is browsing for a book online or in a bookstore, or who glimpses the title in a list, has the opportunity to find out about the book and perhaps buy it. Short stories, by contrast, are usually available only in groups within magazines, anthologies, and collections, and so individual titles are unlikely to have much opportunity to attract readers to buy the work.

In terms of learning to write good titles, I highly recommend exercising this part of your brain wherever possible by using good titles for e-mail subjects, forum discussion titles, boring reports you put together for work, etc. It's a rare situation where anyone will be bothered by you slapping a magnificent title on an otherwise dull report or a quick e-mail, and the more you work to come up with titles the stronger that facility will be.

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