Barry here again. Today's subject is titles.
The most important quality of a title is resonance: that is, "the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions." Resonance matters because resonance makes things stick. Without it, a title produces no emotion -- it stands for nothing and is instantly (and rightly) forgotten. The resonant title, by contrast, beckons you, it insidiously hooks you, it provides the first step in a seduction that culminates in the pleasure of the book itself.
There are two kinds of resonance: automatic, and acquired. They're not mutually exclusive. Let's examine both.
Automatic resonance exists in a title that moves you before you've read, or even heard anything about, the book. The title taps into something that already exists in your mind: an experience, an archetype, a memory, a famous phrase or line of poetry. The title stirs that preexisting thing to life, and in doing so makes you feel you know something important and appealing about the underlying work.
One way of checking whether a title has automatic resonance is to ask someone who has never heard of the book, "What do you think it's about?" If the person has a sense, a feeling, if the person can grasp the broad emotional contours of the story, the title has resonance. If you get a giant "huh?" in response, something is wrong. (If the title tells too much, you have a different problem -- more on which below.)
Recently I heard of a book called "Cemetery of the Nameless." I'd never even heard of the book, but the title alone gave me a shiver. I couldn't tell you the plot, but my guess is, emotionally we're talking about something having to do with death, being forgotten, masses of anonymous people... perhaps, ultimately, loneliness and despair. "Motherless Brooklyn," by Jonathan Lethem, was another one that hit me instantly. Presumably the story takes place in Brooklyn, but an unmoored Brooklyn, a Brooklyn that grew up fending for itself, a Brooklyn of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. "The Blade Itself," by Marcus Sakey, was another: a story about violence, and violence's allure. David Morrell's last two titles, each consisting of a single word, have been right on the money. "Creepers" and "Scavenger." Think they're love stories? Coming of age? Or are they stories driven by fear and suspense?
I'd love to hear some other titles you think have automatic resonance -- and not just the titles, but why they resonate for you, what causes the resonance. With enough responses, we'll be better able to control for subjectivity and tease out underlying principles.
Resonance requires hitting a sweet spot, a note that lies somewhere between the hopelessly vague and the embarrassingly literal. Vague doesn't work because it tells the potential reader too little. For example, "Rain Fall" was a bad title for my first book (I didn't know better at the time). The phrase is too common, and the phenomenon it describes too ordinary, to offer any automatic resonance. Certainly it fails the "What do you think the book is about?" test (even if it passes, it's misleading -- rain fall has gentle connotations, while assassin John Rain is anything but). But be careful not to go too far in the other direction: one of the titles my publisher favored for a more recent installment in my series was "The Quiet Assassin." Something as literal (and redundant) as that can't give you an emotional sense of the story. It's really no different from "Novel About An Assassin" -- which is exactly the response you'd get, no more, no less, from someone in response to the "What do you think it's about?" test.
Like everyone else, Hollywood makes mistakes, but when they're on, oh, man, do they nail resonance in movie taglines. One of the best ever was "Alien": "In space, no one can hear you scream." Pause for a moment. Pretend you never saw the movie; you're hearing about it now for the first time. What do you think it's about? "Mortal terror alone in space, probably with a monster" would be my guess. But then why not just call the movie something like that? "Mortal Terror Alone in Space: Stalked by a Predatory Alien." Because resonance requires that you make the connection yourself. If someone else makes it for you, the result has all the emotional impact of a joke you didn't get until someone explained it to you. Now you get it, fine, but you never laughed, did you? We intuitively understand the problem with being too literal (although the intuition doesn't always prevent mistakes). Getting too literal is obvious; obvious feels silly; silly feels like parody. It's not a coincidence that "Airplane," "Scary Movie," "Date Movie," etc. are all comedies. And "Snakes on a Plane" was a giant wink at the audience.
Alternatively, the Alien producers could have gone for something vaguer: "Space Danger" as a title; "Fear" as a tagline. Pause again: why was what the producers chose infinitely better than a more literal or a vaguer approach? The principles you tease out will apply to titles, too.
Any other favorite movie taglines out there? Don't just offer them up -- explain why they're effective.
Of course, titles are part of the overall book packaging, and the impact of a title will change when it's combined with artwork. Here's an article on the subject of packaging overall. But ideally, the title will produce resonance on its own. If it doesn't, your susceptibility to word of mouth advertising will be reduced, because someone hearing about a book for the first time from a friend can't see, and therefore isn't affected by, the artwork on the cover.
This is getting long, so with MJ's leave, I'll break it up into two pieces. Tomorrow: Acquired Resonance, and why it's the part of titling that gives publishers the most trouble.
Thanks for coming by,