Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Creating the Killer Title

It came to my observation the other day that successful novel titles are all very similar. Classics, fantasy, romance, children's books - they all have one thing in common. Nouns.
Nouns are the most powerful words in language. I know I've been told how strong verbs are, but nouns are even stronger.

Why? Nouns are more than just objects. Objects imply action, possibly setting, and they have a denotation and a connotation. That's a lot! Verbs, on the other hand, can only give the reader one thing - action.

Consider this list of well-known novels:
  • The Hunger Games
  • Graceling
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • Divergent
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Delirium
  • Much Ado About Nothing 
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Odyssey
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty
  • Little Women 
They are all nouns. Hunger implies desperation and lethality. Games imply strategy, pushing one's self, a winner and a loser. Fahrenheit brings to mind heat and at a high enough degree, 451, burning. One book I didn't mention (because it is not well-known) that is a great example is the debut by Scott Tracey, Witch Eyes.Witches cast spells. Eyes see. Graceling, though a made up word, is built from two familiar roots - "grace" and the suffix "-ling" which connotes something that is a smaller form (i.e. duckling, underling, sibling, or another fantasy word that Tolkien created - halfling). Grace could mean kindness or elegance or a blessing, but, as we find out in the book, Graces are often the opposite. It is an ironic and intriguing title.

Consider also the large amount of titles starting with "the". A portion from my goodreads list:
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Demon King
  • The Amulet of Samarkand
  • The Thief
  • The Velveteen Rabbit
  • The Goddess Test
  • The Shifter
  • The Screwtape Letters
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 
  • The Host
  • The Aeneid
  • The Hobbit
"The" is the commonest of common words, not seeming for an explosive title, but it signals to the reader something exciting. People aren't just "doing" in this book. They are being. All three "the"s are necessary for the title The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. "The" connects all three elements. They are all pertinent and important to each other. It's not just any witch, but "the" witch. The white witch. It's not just any lion, but "the" lion who speaks and is strong and is not safe (as Lucy discovers). And there would be no story without "the" wardrobe that transports four children to Narnia. I don't know about you, but my wardrobe can't do that, so it must be a pretty unique one.

"The" tells readers many things. It's not just a conglomeration but a specific thing at a specific time with a specific problem. Names work similarly.
  • Harry Potter
  • Hamlet
  • Carrie
  • Eragon
  • David Copperfield
  • Sabriel
  • Taran Wanderer
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Alanna: The First Adventure
Shakespeare loved names. King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. (Curiously, all these are tragedies. Obviously, his histories have to follow the person in them, but none of his comedies are titled with names.) Names are personal, and they tell the reader that the book is personal. It is not an unemotional plot, but it is driven by the person. And we care about people.

Harry Potter wins the double whammy award because with each book, not only did Rowling include a person's name, but she also used "the". Harry Potter and the. It's personal, it's specific, it won Rowling a writing lifestyle.

The last theme I noticed among successful books is that the titles bely problems, lots of them. How do they do this? Plurals.
  • The Hunger Games 
  • Les Miserables
  • Star Wars
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Great Expectations
  • The Things They Carried
  • Things Fall Apart
Plurals are problems and lots of them! They generally mean impact on a large group of people over a long span of time. The Hunger Games go on for 74 years and impact a whole continent. The miserables of Les Miserables could be considered the entire country of France in the time before and during the French Revolution. Star Wars spans planets and a generation, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings encompasses multiple races and lasts from 2941-3021 in the fourth age (had to look that up!). 

As for verb titles, I found very few. I found a few that contained verbs, but all but one title used describing verbs, sort of how "closed" can be past tense for "She closed the door" or an adjective "The door is closed" (examples: Ella Enchanted, Matched).  Ironically, the one verb title I found is the sequel to the very successful title The Hunger Games

Catching Fire.

So how does this work?

I don't know. I'm sorry, but I can't give an answer. Perhaps it was the previous momentum of The Hunger Games that made it work. Perhaps it was the knowledge the readers came with when they read the title (Katniss's Games outfit that catches on fire). Personally, the title confused me for a while even after I read the book just because fire didn't reappear as a theme enough. 

What do you think? Do you still hate books that start with the word "the"? (My sister does.) Do you think the perfect title to your novel is a verb? Do you know any other well-known books whose titles are verbs?


  1. Good to see that you're posting again!

    I personally tend to not like titles that start with "The," but I get over it if it's a good enough book. I think the best titles intrigue and/or do something new with language--OR--evoke a strong emotion. Like "Disgrace" by Coetzee. So simple, and so perfect for that book.

  2. @Anna

    Glad to see you posting again! My sister points out that plenty of books with the above elements do poorly, so it all comes down to preference. Like my geology professor says, "When there is no obvious better alternative, just choose whatever seems prettiest to you." (In choosing rocks for our collection.)

    Thanks for the book suggestion! This is love in a writer's world.

  3. I like titles with names and 'the.' =) I think Catching Fire works because it's the second book of the trilogy, where the Districts are 'catching fire', if not literally, then in the fire of revolution. And it implies fire and burning things, which is always exciting. ;)

    As for verb titles, I actually didn't really like 'Matched' as a title. I felt that it should have been a bit more sinister than that, because the word 'matched' sounds fun, cute, and bubbly to me. Well, I guess there IS a bubble on the cover...but that's not the point, haha.

  4. Allison!! Haha this post is funny..awesome as well. I just started my own blog :p just for kicks and all that jazz.

    P.S. I'm writing every day now so I can finish my novel, which is titled a verb. Does that mean it will never get published? ;) Ha

    Love you.