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March 22, 2007


J R Gordon

Resonance is all ... sure is. But it's hit and miss insofar as titles and their connectivity with readers. While one sees a rock, the other sees a tombstone. While one sees a bunch of trees; the other a forest.
My ponderings for titles have always been laborious ... whether it's a novel or an article. If I get it right half the time then I'm half happy. If I get it right all the time then I start worrying, because I know that someone is massaging my ego. Nobody gets it right all the time.
The title of my novel, 'Graves in the Wilderness' came to me whilst trudging through the hills of the northern wilderness; stumbling over simple, stone grave markers. They bore no names, just initials and a date, hastily scratched by some scribe as equally deficient in identification as the deceased below the stone. It was fitting that I named the novel as I did.
Did it convey a message? Did it resonate? Well, if I'm half right I'm happy.
Jock JR Gordon
Author - Graves in the Wilderness

Vince A. Liaguno

Interesting column, Barry. I think horror films really hit the nail on the head with taglines and titles that resonate. Some of the most effective have come from those gloriously cheesy slasher films of the early 80's:

~Prom Night/If you're not back by midnight, you won't be coming home.
~Halloween/The night he came home.
~Terror Train/The boys and girls of Sigma Phi - some will live, and some will die.
~Hell Night/Pray for day.

The list could go on and on.


PJ Parrish

I always kind of liked the title "A Killing Rain." Was it as good for you as it was for me? :)

Natasha Mostert

Hi Barry,
My favourite title is "Woman who run with the wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. You just know this book says: I am woman, hear me ROAR!

My first book is titled The Midnight Side. I desperately wanted the title to be "Precious Dust", which is a quote from Thomas Carew's poem "Elegy on Maria Wentworth". As you can probably tell,it is a poem about a corpse. I thought it was erudite, classy, chilling, altogether terrific. My editor dismissed it immediately on the grounds that people would think I'm writing a National Geographics study on precious metals. She was probably right but I still feel bitter about the whole thing.

However, "Midnight Side" now gets mixed up with Sidney Sheldon's "The other Side of Midnight". And people seem to think I did it on purpose to poach his readership. Actually, come to think of it, my editor was one smart woman :-)


"But it's hit and miss insofar as titles and their connectivity with readers. While one sees a rock, the other sees a tombstone. While one sees a bunch of trees; the other a forest." (JR Gordon)

I couldn't agree more. We're all going to filter things differently. It's a subjective ol' world. However, I think the point is to choose a title that will resonate with as wide a market as possible, always keeping your target reader in sight.

A title like "Blood Lust" could resonate with fans of horror, mystery and true crime, while necessarily putting off fans of Harlequin style bodice rippers.

I know I'd be hard pressed to pick up a book entitled "Her Heart's Craving", because it imparts a picture of heaving bosoms and the like. Thanks, but no.

Some movie titles that resonated with me:

"Apocolypse Now" conveys immediacy and a sense of forboding, without giving away anything of the story. You know it will be dramatic. (understatement)

"Dead Man Walking" has a fatalistic sound to it which works well with the subject matter.

"Primal Fear". I think this one speaks for itself.

gregory huffstutter

Great posts this week! You're a tough act to follow.

Regarding titles, I have a love-hate relationship with mine: "Katz Cradle."

What I like:
* My book is the first in a series about a young, relatively-immature cop named Zero Katz... so the 'cradle' reflects the fact that Katz has a lot of growing-up to do
* I've always had a soft spot for word-play. One of my favorite titles of all time is Joseph Wambaugh's "Finnegan's Week"
* I used the image of a Cat's Cradle -- substituting crime tape for string -- on my cover mock-up (located here: Hopefully the image/title evokes a tangled mess.

What I don't like:
* I think my title itself fails the test of automatic response you discussed above. 'Katz Cradle' is closer to your 'Rain Fall' example -- nice word-play, but too vague and no clue to plot/genre.
* Kurt Vonnegut fans will probably send me nasty e-mails.

Any thoughts?

Gregory Huffstutter aka "Ad Man Answers"

Joe Moore

I think the title of the first SAW movie could make anyone nervous, and it had a great tag line that let us know exactly what you were in for. The sequels seemed forced but still had merit.

SAW Every puzzle has its pieces.

SAW II Oh yes, there will be blood.

SAW III Suffering. You haven’t seen anything yet.

But one of my favorite tag lines comes from the movie, Alien Vs. Predator. Whoever wins . . . we lose.

Barry Eisler

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Jock, you're right, there's always a subjective element at work here. But it doesn't follow that no objectivity can be brought to bear... otherwise, we'd have no means for evaluating art itself, either artistically or commercially. I'm always most comfortable with a set of objective principles by which I can pressure check my subjective impressions... which is why, when asking for people to suggest their own favorite "automatic resonance" titles, I asked for the reasons. Articulating it helps get you past a "I just like it, it's my favorite color, I really think it pops, it speaks to me" kind of test, which is of course almost entirely subjective and therefore entirely useless.

Vince, I like those horror titles and taglines. I think horror often plays things closer to the literal end of the continuum, and why not? They know their audience and want the audience to know exactly what to expect. In fact, here's one of my favorites, from a movie called "Pieces:"

"You don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre... Pieces! It's just what you think it is."

Crude? Yes. Effective? I'd say so... Pieces was a low budget, lowbrow movie, and the producers knew exactly how many tickets they had to sell to make money. The focused ruthlessly on a motivated niche market and marketed accordingly.

LOL, PJ! Yeah, "Killing Rain" must have been in the air when our 2005 books were getting named. But what a difference a particle can make. For me, "A Killing Rain" is a decent title for a genre book: violence, stormy weather, danger, a hard rain's gonna fall. "Killing Rain" feels unmoored by comparison, especially given that my protagonist's name is John Rain. Is he killed? Doing the killing? Are those questions even particularly interesting or evocative in the title?

Natasha, I'd say your editor exchanged a strong title that might have had the wrong resonance for some people for a weak title that was unlikely to resonate with anyone one way or the other. This is a common mistake in branding generally: people are afraid of making a strong statement that could turn off certain consumers. So they choose a weak statement instead in an attempt not to repel anyone -- and wind up attracting no one, too. Take the faulty logic to its silly conclusion, and we should just title a book "Book." This way, it'll appeal to *all* readers! In fact, why be so specific? We could call the book "Product," because *everyone* needs products! My God, there are a billion product consumers in China alone... this could be bigger than The Da Vinci Code!

The real trick is to identify a targetable, receptive niche market and focus the marketing ruthlessly on that niche. This exercise will involve initially alienating anyone not in that niche. Once the niche is conquered, you can use it as a base to expand.

LJ, nicely put point on the role of subjectivity and how to deal with it. Thanks. I also like your movie titles. Notice how some of them are closer to the literal end of the continuum, while others are more vague? Which is the appropriate point on the continuum depends in part on your market, and also to what degree you're focused on acquired resonance, which I'll post about tomorrow.

Right back at you, Gregory; really enjoying your guest series here on BBH. In general, I agree with your analysis of "Katz Cradle." And it and the Wambaugh title you mention nicely illustrate the difference, and possible tension, between automatic and acquired resonance. So if you don't mind, I'll use them as examples tomorrow...

Joe, great examples! And again, it's interesting that horror taglines tend to cleave (little pun there, I admit) closer to the literal end of the continuum. I'll go out on a limb here and surmise that this is true of porn, too. In both cases, the producers know they have a strongly motivated, clearly demarcated niche market they're trying to reach, and that if they reach that market, they'll make money. No messing around with artsiness; this is about a fast, sure recoup.

The counter example is Alien, which I think might be the exception that proves the rule. "Pieces," "Saw," "I Dismember Mama" etc. are all schlock. "Alien" was a masterpiece. I think the producers knew they had a masterpiece on their hands, something that would acquire resonance and therefore didn't require a lot of literalism up front. More on which, tomorrow...


gregory huffstutter

Feel free to use "Katz" as your example tomorrow.
FYI - my back-up options have been to reference my character's first name, Zero.
Titles like "Zero Remains" and "Up To Zero" have come to mind. I think they have the upside of evoking desperation, which gives a clue to the genre (probably not a knitting book).
But there are a lot of 'Zero' titles out there -- easy to get lost.
I'll be interested to hear your take tomorrow.

Nat Sobel

There are also a lot of successful books, despite their titles. Would "Virgin Suicides" send you running to the bookstore?
I plead guilty to the title "Rain FAll", but what I had in mind is getting the central characters' name into the buyers'mind in the first of a possible series

Barry Eisler

Nat, I agree, there's as much art at work here as science, and there are plenty of exceptions. For me, the key is to try to identify the broad principles so I have some way of gauging. As for the title Rain Fall, hey, it was an experiment! And perhaps one of those books that succeeds despite its title.


David J. Montgomery

I would be wary of using a title like "Katz Cradle" for a mystery novel, as my first instinct would be to think it was a silly cat mystery. Currently in the mystery genre there is a torrent of books with punny title of all sorts. If that suits the tenor of the book, fine. But I tend to discard them on receipt.

Barry, about the Rain titles... I think you have a point, as to this day I still have trouble remembering which title goes with which book. I identify them far more strongly with their colors (Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple) than I do their titles. (A different aspect of the packaging at work.)

For #6, though... REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN... That's a title that resonates.

PJ Parrish

David makes a good point about "serial" titles. It's a popular ploy, using a one-word branding iron (Joe Konrath = drinks; Barbara Parker = Suspicion of; Chris Grabenstein = carnival rides). But I agree with David that it can create identification problems.

Barbara told me once she felt hemmed in by the "Suspicion" tag and she has since abandoned it. Julia Spencer-Fleming uses hymns for her title-tag but each title manages to reflect the tone of the individual work.

I think unless you're living in the rarified air of a Janet Evanovich, it can backfire. I've often heard readers say they lose track of which book is which in such titled series. And do you want to risk that happening if you are still building an audience? I understand the marketing logic behind it, but I wonder if, in today's super-saturated market, it's too difficult to make an impression this way, say the way Sue Grafton did in 1983 with "A Is For Alibi" or John Sandford in 1989 with "Rules of Prey."

As for non-resonating titles, Sanford wrote two novels BEFORE scoring with his first Prey books: "The Wheel Key Number" and "The Chippewa Zoo." Neither was published. Maybe those titles had something to do with it?

Darwyn Jones

Barry - I appreciate the topic. Considering I'm in title hell right now. Hmmm, Title Hell. No, no, no. See, I'm infected.

Linda Karlsen

Hi Barry, my favorite ex-CIA!

I have just printed out the first chapter of "Rain Fall" and will read it tonight :) I loved the title! All I knew beforehand, was that it's about an assasin. From the title I immediately deducted that the assasin is lonely or haunted or both, and he has fallen often, but got back on his feet again. He's got debts to pay and he walks alone through the rain with his gun. Is that just about right?

Best movie taglines:

"In Space No One Can Hear You Scream" Alien (my favorite movie!!!)

"Oh yes, There Will Be Blood"
Saw 2

"Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In Water" Jaws ii

"They're Making Memories Tonight!" It's a Wonderful Life

"Check In. Relax. Take a Shower"

"The Night HE Came Home"

"You'll Believe a Man Can Fly"

"They're Here..."

"This Time It's War"

"Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement."

"Get Ready For Rush Hour"

"Whoever Wins, We Lose"
Aliens Vs. Predator


Barry Eisler

David, good points on Rain This, Rain That, and you're not the first person to have difficulty remembering which book is which. The problem lies not just in the similarity of the titles, but in the fact that none of the titles has anything to do with the underlying story. This is partly a case of a lack of acquired resonance, which I'll be discussing in greater depth here tomorrow.

As for Requiem for an Assassin, I agree, nice automatic resonance. Whether the title will have acquired resonance depends on whether it's connected in a meaningful way to the heart of the story.

PJ, one important aspect of JE's titles is that they're numbered. One for the Money... Two for the Show... very easy to remember which is which. One thing I've always wondered about is the apparent reluctance of publishers to include numbers on series packaging (JE's of course, are inherent in the titles themselves). It's frequently the first question readers want answered -- "which installment is this in the series? Which book should I start with?" -- and yet publishers rarely offer the information right on the packaging. It seems strange to me not to give your customers what they want, and what will make it easier for them to adopt your product. But maybe I'm missing something.

Linda, you're making fun of me...

Robocop! Forgot that one. Fantastic tagline.

See you all tomorrow,

david isaak

Barry, your essays couldn't have come at a better time. My first novel is coming down the chute, and the powers that be want a title change to make it "less oblique."

What they in fact want, I now know, is automatic resonance. Now if I can just find some...




Namaste Barry,
Thank you for taking the time to assist other evolving writers
with discussion forums & blogs. Harmonic Resonance is something Gregg Braden talks about in his new book:"The Sponteneous Healing of Belief". An example of how this works, is by setting two guitars near each other, plucking the G string on one guitar and the G string on the other guitar will soon vibrate in resonance.

This is a metaphore for what you are speaking about concerning book "Titles" that subconsciously stirr something within another's soul, that inspires curiosity to know more.

Other resonant titles are:
Gregg Braden's books,
"The God Code",
"Walking Between the Worlds",
"Awakening to Zero Point"

...Bruce Lipton's book,
"Biology of Belief"...
Julia Cameron's books:
"The Sound of Paper" (Starting from Scratch), and her well known
"The Artist's Way" and "Vein of Gold" books...

Lynn Andrew's book, "Writing Spirit" (Finding Your Creative Soul)
Dan Milman's book:
"The Laws of Spirit"
Shaun McNiff's book
"Art Heals", as well as
Caroline Myss's books,
"Anatomy of Spirit,
"Sacred Contracts" and
"Entering the Castle". Thanks
again and blessings.....sage

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George Snyder

My just completed crime novel has already gone through one title change, from "Killer Legs" to "Stealing Bribe Money" which is exactly what the novel is about. But after reading this article on titles, I'm changing it again to "Taking Bribe Money" which better describes the story. Using obvious non-descriptive titles is confusing. I still can't figure how "The Postman Always Rings Twice" directly connects to James M. Cain's great novel. But I think Hemingway hit it right on with "A Farewell to Arms."

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