The Title Dilemma

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on August 14, 2012 0 Comments

Like every author on the planet, I’ve spent endless hours mulling over creating titles for my work. One strives, of course, to be both memorable and honestly descriptive of the content.

There are also marketing aspects to be considered. The marquee value cannot be neglected since the book, especially fiction, must compete in the market place and be “discoverable” to the searching eye of the browser and the impulsive book buyer who scans bookshelves of those bookstores still remaining and interminable book cover images that clutter the e-reader “shelves.”

Another wild aspiration that motivates the author is the possibility of a movie production of their novel and the limitations of the actual movie marquee. Anything more than a four-word title could be a dream killer. Imagine any great movie or TV adaptation based on a novel where the title of the novel is changed. I have been lucky in that regard with three of my works The War of the Roses, Random Hearts and The Sunset Gang.

The title’s suggestion to a cover artist was, and perhaps still is, an aspect that had to be taken into account. The book cover design and illustration has always been an integral part of the marketing process and many fine prize winning designs have been an essential marketing tool for books in both fiction and non-fiction categories.

For books in categories such as romance, science fiction, mysteries, fantasy, zombie and vampire stories, young adult and children’s books and all their sub-categories, the titles and covers must reflect the specific genre to clearly designate its content.

But for the author of mainstream fiction whose story line is not in any genre category, he or she must face the agony of choice. Many famous authors chose to name their books after a main character, and one can point to many successes such as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Daniel Deronda, Nana, Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Rebecca, Tom Jones, Clarissa, Robinson Crusoe and the most enduring of all, Don Quixote.

Some authors have chosen place names, countries, houses, streets, neighborhoods, destinations, bars, modes of transportation and myriad other categories as titles, too numerous to mention; Wuthering Heights and Tales of the South Pacific are typical.

Many of these, obviously, are classic novels that have stood the test of time but there are many character named titles that have passed on to obscurity.

Then there are the titles that are lifted from lines of poetry that the author believes are an apt choice to illustrate a theme of the novel, some of recent vintage like The Lovely Bones. Among the better known are A Handful of Dust, Of Mice and Men, Far From the Madding Crowd, Remembrance of Things Past, Endless Night and many others.

One title that always intrigued me was Catcher in the Rye, which takes its inspiration from Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet whose “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye” was a poem with obvious sexual overtones, a subject much on the mind of the main character in the book. Another is To Kill A Mockingbird, which takes its title from a snippet of dialogue from its main character declaring that to kill a mockingbird is a sin. That title truly encapsulates the theme of that novel.

Believe me, I have had many sleepless nights trying to come up with titles that accurately nailed the content of my work. I’ve taken them from snippets of poetry and quotations from Shakespeare whose work is a gold mine of fantastic possibilities. Indeed, I found the title of my latest work, The Serpent’s Bite, in that famous quote by Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” It hits the mark about the content of this novel with deadly accuracy.

I’ve always admired the titles of Hemingway, masterpieces of accuracy, nuance and subtlety. Few are better than A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bells Toll, and an all-time favorite of mine is Gone With the Wind, which is beautifully said and chillingly accurate. Another all-time favorite of mine is The Red and the Black, by Stendahl, subtly delineating the central focus of the main character’s ambitions, the red of the Army and the black of the clergy.

Thomas Hardy was a master of titles: Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native to mention just two of many. Some wonderful titles stick in my craw, not because they are not brilliant but, for some reason, I could never fully master their content. They are One Hundred Years of Solitude and Under the Volcano.

But then, by and large, a great title is an art form unto itself. Indeed, a great title does not necessarily signify a great book and vice versa.

It has always been a source of great curiosity to me to understand the psychology of “titling.” Do titles really help in making reading choices or are they merely identifying pointers? I’d like to hear what you think.

About the Author ()

Warren Adler is a world-renowned novelist, short story writer and playwright. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages and two of his novels, THE WAR OF THE ROSES and RANDOM HEARTS, have been made into enormously popular movies, shown c

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