by Sherwood Smith
Some writers find it easy to come up with titles. I don’t. I’ve usually cheated and used a protag’s name, or a place’s name, and if there are subsequent stories, a number. My second default has been to steal from the best—but when I start riffling through famous poetry and plays, the literary fingerprints of centuries of other writers on the same quest smudge the phrases and words I would have picked.
The third choice, the one I envy most in auditory writers, is coming up with the perfect phrase. Being a visual writer, I can sometimes see what I think the perfect image, but until I can perfect my tinfoil hat to convey that image directly to the reader, I have to try to capture the image in words. The question then becomes, what is perfect?
Titles were a topic of discussion among a bunch of writers recently. One person who has worked in Hollywood said that a ‘perfect’ title is one that catches the attention without the bolstering need for a logline to further define it. He gave as an example the title Legally Blonde.
I agree in that it is evocative, and also doesn’t give away the ending. Gone With The Wind sounds splendid, but it does take a risk because it pretty much puts the theme right out there. But it became a bestseller anyway.
A title that perfectly encapsulates the story sometimes drains it of interest for potential readers. Like it took me years to see the classic film Bad Day at Black Rock. Who wants to sit through two hours about someone else’s bad day, I thought. Not me! The question is, of course, bad day for whom?
But sometimes writers at workshops come up with titles that pretty much let you know how the story is going to go within a page or two of the opening. Many readers will give up if they are convinced they know where the story is headed, and the narrative voice isn’t charismatic enough to make the getting there worth it.
Titles that I agreed were eye-catchers included Dead Again, Double Indemnity, Three Days of the Condor, The Crucible. Then there were the comedic ones. Horse Feathers. I can’t resist that. Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
The discussion shifted to turn-off titles. Certain words signal automatic reject! for different folks. One writer said that anything with the word vengeance in it was a no go for her. For me, pretty much anything that suggests horror.
People agreed that ‘static’ titles were not particularly interesting—except no one quite agreed on a list of static words. Like the word Shadow. Perfectly good word, instant image, but one person pointed out that it’s been used so much over the past bunch of years, that when she sees Shadow in a title, she feels like the knows the entire plot.
Same with Shattered, someone else said. Especially if teamed with Fate, Destiny, Path or Sword. “I know exactly what that story is about,” was followed by someone else saying, “I avoid anything with Fate, Destiny, or even Path because it implies there is no choice—the hero of chapter one has to be the hero at the inevitable final battle.”
Someone else pointed out that these reactions are all typical of long-time readers. “Ask any junior high kid who loves fantasy if he or she would read something titled Shadow Sword, and they will instantly grab the book because it sounds like there will be cool battles, and maybe dragons or monsters. And Sword of Destiny means oh boy, the kid at the start will end up king. What’s not to like?”
One person categorically refused to read anything with Dragon in the title. Or on the cover. I later worked on this person to get her to read Tooth and Claw. I knew she would love the book—and as it turned out, I was right. But she’d avoided it for years because of the title and cover, she assumed it was another kind of book.
Romance novel titles were an easy target, especially for those of us who’ve been around for a while, and saw the burgeoning of romance back in the bodice-buster days. For a while, it seemed like it was impossible to find any romance without the word blazing in the title. Love’s Blazing Passion. Passion’s Blazing Love. Double points, someone said, if the hero’s first or last name was Blaze or Blayze or Blaise. (This gave us oldsters an extra chuckle when we thought of Blazing Saddles.)
Then there are the misleading titles, a bit like Tooth and Claw was for my friend. The Hobbit I resisted for years, walking by it with a sneer on my fourth-grade and fifth-grade and sixth-grade lips, the years I would have loved that book the most, just because I assumed it was about cute dressed-up animals. A Wrinkle in Time I also resisted, because it sounded coy, a variation on ‘A stitch in time’ and I figured ‘wrinkle’ had to be some domestic chore thing, because after all the book was on the recent award shelf. We knew those were dreary, message-heavy books that teachers and librarians thought would be Good For Us.
Case in point being the one we loathed so much in fourth and fifth grade—I can no longer recall the exact title now, because we soon changed it (in fourth grade manner) to Libby’s Toilet Chest but it was something like or Linda or Lizzy or maybe even Mindy or Minnie, and her Treasure Chest.
I do remember the ‘treasure chest’ because when I was an early library goer, before I got leery of awards, I found the book on the award shelf and I snatched it up without opening it, thinking at last! a book about a girl pirate! A girl having adventures! But I got it home… and the ‘chest’ turned out to be a sewing kit from her grandmother, and the ‘treasures’ were bits of cloth onto which she embroidered humble mottos after she got into trouble and learned her lesson.
Anyway. Misleading titles are harder to characterize because what misleads one reader might not mislead another. And different words that turn off one reader might beckon others.
What are some titles that caught your eye, and what are some that you avoided because you thought they were about something else? Writers, how do you pick your titles?