The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
I Am Number Four
These are the titles that come to mind as I work my way in circles around and around and around, searching for the right name for my flagship book. It’s currently nicknamed Fire and Brimstone, but there’s just something about those three words that doesn’t satisfy me.
I’m looking for a name like Survivor, where the title doesn’t really click until you hit the climax of the story. As a reader, I relish that punch-you-in-the-gut moment when you realize what the title really means. It’s funny and tragic and clever, all in a few sharp words.
At the same time, the title must push its way past other titles and call out to a potential reader as he or she walks past. This is a great feat for an inanimate object to accomplish, so it’s up to the authors and editors and friends of authors to brainstorm a real charmer.
Thinking up a great title is like fly fishing: You have a fraction of a second to make an impression, so it better accomplish two things:
1. Call to the right reader.
2. Relay enough information to make the call, but not so much that the book loses flavor.
First, let’s talk about #1. As you work through title after title, brainstorm after brainstorm, ask yourself a few questions. Most obvious question: Who’s the audience? To whom are we calling? Know that information beforehand. Let’s look at the title She’s All That. Or even better, how about Bring It On. These were intended for a specific audience (teenage girls on summer vacation and money to blow at the movies), and tailored accordingly: the former relies on slang, and the latter is a sort of valley girl-ism.
It worked, of course. Every teenage girl saw Bring It On. And it was actually a pretty good movie.
A title uses language patterns, style and slang to dictate the audience; to develop an audience-appropriate title, you have to not only know the “isms” out there in your audience, but know them well enough to use them naturally and not sound like an outsider trying to appear as an insider. You are the genuine insider.
#2 is a bit more complicated, as it goes beyond the marketing side of the house. You never want to give everything about your story away at once. Your writing is an opportunity to keep your reader hostage, keep them rooted to the couch or the chair or the bed without putting the book down until it’s all over—at which point he or she goes and buys your next book, or your sequel.
Movies make this mistake all the time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a movie preview and thought to myself, “I already know how that one’s going to end. Why bother?” They showed us clips of the beginning, the middle and the climax already; we know the hero gets the girl and there’s a big monster fight, and soon this humble story of a small-town girl becomes a battle to save the world.
But what if you could hold some of that back? What if you titled your story in such a way that as your reader reads on and on, the title reveals more and more?
One way to learn the right way is to learn the wrong way. The worst kind of title is one that has nothing to do with a story. I loved the book Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, but for the life of me I still can’t figure out why someone chose that title. It accomplished #1, don’t get me wrong; I picked it up, I bought it, I read it. But those two words never appeared as a quippy line later in the book (like 10 Things I Hate About You), or told us what the book was about (think A Wizard of Earthsea). I went into it purely on a recommendation.
Currently what I struggle with is the balance between these two things: The title must reveal enough to tease the reader, but not reveal the twist, climax or punchline of the story. (As a quick and dirty example: We know what The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is all about right away). In the process of teasing, your title must speak to your reader in the reader’s native language, whatever that is.
Some other title thoughts for Fire and Brimstone:
All the Comforts of Hell
The Devil’s Daughter
My Brother, My Monster