Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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Titles for Your Texts
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
December 5, 2013
In this section I'm going to state the obvious, because in many ways, that's what titles do: they state the obvious.
Titles Are Short. There's not a lot of space on a book cover or a screen (some screens are absolutely tiny). If you want to include some artwork (recommended) and your name (of course) then the title has even less space available. Besides, we humans can only remember so many items in short term memory; you don't want a title that will literally strain your readers' brains.
Titles Should Indicate What Your Book Is About. It would be patently unfair for a book to be titled Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex and Were Afraid to Ask, but have the actual subject be a how-to manual for getting rid of crabgrass.
Titles Often Have Two Lines. To meet the objectives in the first two paragraphs, often titles have the format: "First title phrase" followed frequently (but not always) by a colon, and then a "Second, longer title line that explains more about the contents of the work." The two-line format is especially common for non-fiction books, but I use it frequently for my novels.
Titles Try To Grab Attention. You may have many goals for the title of your book, but one of them is nearly always for it to be noticed.
Obviously, meeting all these objectives can become pretty challenging for a phrase or two, but that's what you've got. And so by the time you've created your title, you spent a lot of effort. It can be especially artistic, with multiple meanings and references.
A sad fact is that titles get ignored, along with italics, poetry and prologues. One reader reported to me that she was surprised -- shocked! -- to learn of the incestuous relationship between Jocasta and Oedipus in our book, Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus. This aspect of the myth is so well known that we felt obliged to mention it in the title; we even hinted strongly at it in the prologue. And yet she missed it. Oh, well. At least she had the chance to experience (vicariously of course) the surprise that Jocasta felt.
Not all readers have this level of inattention. Most people will read the title of your book and catch at least its first meaning. However, secondary meanings frequently go unperceived.
Many years ago a fellow introduced me to David Eddings's The Belgariad, five volumes with the following titles: Pawn of Prophecy; Queen of Sorcery; Magician's Gambit; Castle of Wizardry; and Enchanters' End Game. When I glanced at the titles, I immediately remarked on all the allusions to chess. The young man had never noticed this, despite these being his "favorite books of all time!" -- and his playing a lot of chess. Perhaps part of the problem was due to the fact that he had read them when they were originally published, months or even years apart, and so had not taken the bird's-eye view that enabled me to perceive the pattern.
Even writers don't always notice multiple meanings. My husband and I finally watched the series Lost, on DVD, and as I am always interested in what actors and writers and directors have to say about their efforts, I also listened to most of the Lost commentary. Two of the writers were discussing the meaning of the series' title. Obviously nearly all the characters are lost on the island. But, as we learn in flashbacks, they were also lost in their lives before the series began. One of the writers appeared to be surprised by this second interpretation of the title. I was surprised by his surprise; I thought it was obvious, but if he was not one of the original creators of the series, but only came in later to do a few episodes, perhaps he accepted the title as it was and did not look for additional meanings.
Despite the discouraging lack of understanding, I have a penchant for multiple meanings; I think they add depth. "Fit for the Gods" is the title of the first chapter of our novel, Children of Tantalus, and it has at least three meanings. The first is a sacrifice fit for the gods; the second is a person fit to become a god (in his own mind, at least). And finally, the word "fit" can also refer to an episode of madness, which was also appropriate. Certainly we enjoyed the phrase -- we even discussed it at length -- but we are sure that many readers, perhaps most, won't perceive them all.
Although you may create your titles with many levels in mind, do not expect everyone to get them. Consider the extra meanings as hidden gifts for your most attentive readers.
How Titles Assist the Writing Process
You may think of choosing a title as something that belongs to the beginning of a writing project, as you decide what to do, or perhaps the finish, as you contemplate book covers. However, I have discovered that working on titles during the projects can also assist in process of their creation.
Title Doodling Can Inspire. As a teenager I doodled my first name in combination with the last name of a dreamy boy. As a mature married woman who did not take her husband's name, that act no longer tempts me, but in idle moments I will sketch book covers. I sometimes even play with graphics, the computer-savvy way of doodling. This daydreaming of the book-cover-to-be -- of my name associated with what I hope will be a great novel -- can spur me on when I am tired or uninspired.
Titles Can Help Me Focus. Often in early drafts my story meanders as my characters talk about their days, complain about not sleeping, drink coffee and snipe at each other. But when I write "The Guest of Honor Is Dead" and put it in bold, signaling that it is a chapter title, it gets me back to the story and the core plot.
Titles Help Find Patterns Within A Book. While writing The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma, when I named "Losing Silver" as the title of an early chapter, it connected thematically to later chapters that I called "Finding Gold" and "Restored Treasure."
Titles Can Change. Perhaps, as my work grows, I will find that the title no longer fits. Choosing a new title helps me acknowledge that and discard the sections that no longer belong. The right title helps me create a work that is coherent. Of course, the sections that don't fit and even the old title can be archived for a future effort.
Perhaps you won't use titles for your scenes or even for your chapters, and even if you do, it's possible that they will not impress your readers as much as you want them to. Perhaps a disciplined work ethic and a good outline could do as much to motivate and streamline your writing. However, titles can be another way to keep going.
Titles, Marketing and Other Business
Now, although I don't usually get into the business side of writing, we all know that the title of your book can make a difference to how and where it sells.
A Good Title Can Greatly Increase Sales. The book Compact Classics was renamed The Great American Bathroom Book: Single-Sitting Summaries of All Time Great Books. Although some readers objected that the new title lacked the dignity merited by such a work, the huge increase in revenue made the latter an easy choice for the editors. In fact, they were able to expand it into three volumes, although I believe that the second two volumes are out of print. And yes, I keep a copy in my bathroom.
A Good Title Can Help With Searches. The newest book in our Tapestry of Bronze series is Antigone & Creon: Guardians of Thebes. During its creation, Alice and I referred to it all the time as "Guardians," which is how we still think of it. Nevertheless, before publication we decided to include the names "Antigone" and "Creon". This lets potential readers better know what the book is about: the names Antigone and Creon are more specific, although less romantic, than Guardians of Thebes. It also ensures that reader looking for information about Antigone or Creon is more likely to stumble across our book.
Titles Are Not Copyrighted, But Trademarks Are. According to http://www.legalzoom.com/copyrights-faq/copyright-name-title-slogan-logo.html, titles are not copyrighted. "Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. In many cases, these things may be protected as trademarks."
Your Title Choice May Have Unfortunate Connotations. I recently published The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma. However, it turns out that there is a real Highbury, where real murders have taken place. Alas, murders have taken place everywhere. I hope I am not offending those who suffered from these real events, and I hope that the second line of the title will keep potential readers from confusing my fiction with reality.
Title Patterns Can Signal a Series. The allusions to chess in Eddings's The Belgariad may have been too obscure for potential readers, but in other cases the title pattern makes it clear that the book belongs to a series. The Harry Potter books all had the phrase Harry Potter in them. You have probably also seen book covers with titles like these: A is for Alibi; B is for Burglar; C is for Corpse. The pattern signals immediately to potential readers that these are part of the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton. If you are considering writing a series, you may want to create a similar pattern.
Although I've made many suggestions above, these really are only suggestions. I'm sure you can find many examples in which these suggestions are ignored, and with great success. Nevertheless I think we can agree that titles serve a useful purpose for books, chapters, scenes and even emails. I also challenge you to pause when reading titles created by others and see if you can discover their multiple meanings.
Thanks for reading! Thanks for joining me on my exploration some of what it takes to craft fabulous fiction; I've appreciated the kind notes from many of you in response to earlier columns. See you in 2014!
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.