Wednesday, 23 May 2012

5 Elements Of A Good Title...

1) Easy to say, easy to spell, easy to find.
Who wants to look stupid when ordering or discussing a book?  Make your title easy to say. The spelling matters because if someone is searching on Amazon or Google and they get the spelling wrong, then the search engines won't find them.  You can help people find your book by using uncommon words.  My name, Sarah Duncan, is fairly common. If someone does a Google search for me, my website does come up first, but there are lots of other Sarah Duncans around, as well as things like "...said Sarah. Duncan, on the other hand..." If your title has lots of common words then it's going to be harder to find on search engines.

2) Fits in with the genre
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society doesn't sound like it's a thriller or teenage vampire book, In Cold Blood doesn't say romance, Twilight couldn't really be anything but a vampire story. Titles need to match the genre.  Go into a bookshop and and look at the titles in 'your' section.  You're looking for patterns, for example, lots of one word titles or titles which contain place names. Are there puns or plays on words? Slightly risque?  Your title needs to fit in here.  

3) Has some originality or quirkiness
Would Captain Corelli's Mandolin have done as well as The Italian with the Guitar?  I think not.  Strong nouns are the answer here.  If I say "the book about the tractors", I bet most of you will know the book I mean. Penguin used that line to advertise Marina Lewycka's next book, which shows what a powerful technique this is.

4) Uses 'special' words.
There are some words that have more power than others. Lucky. Secret. Desire. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is one of my favourite titles ever (it's a good book, too), and all those nouns are special words.  Numbers and colours work well, although some numbers and colours are better than others - 12 Shades of Beige doesn't have quite the same ring.  

Deconstruct some of your favourite and least favourite titles and analyse what makes them work (or not).  Then try to apply the same principles to your own.  I think the 5th element is time - good titles rarely come  easily or quickly in my experience, but when the right one comes along it's easy to spot.


Marilyn Rodwell said...

Totally agree! The power of Marketing is more than most imagine. What's in a name? A lot. What's in a title? So much more. On one level, people buy because they like the sound of the name. At least it makes them perk up and pick up the book.

Love your post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was talking about this only last night with my wife. The title of the novel on which the film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was based was originally Men Who Hate Women which, having just watched the original Swedish adaptation is, I have to say, a far more accurate and appropriate title but, as my wife pointed out, what woman would go and watch a film with a title like that? The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a sexy title—in that not-quite-sexual way advertisers have started using the word. The thing I find about a lot of titles is that how we feel about them changes once we’ve seen the film or read the books. Is Catch-22 a great title? Not particularly but now it’s developed a live all of its own; even people who’ve never heard of the book use it. I’ve actually been puzzled by some of the titles I’ve seen appearing of late. There’s a new TV series in America called Girls which, big surprise, is about a bunch of girls but it’s really not very helpful when you’re searching for information about it on Google, a thing that has to be at the forefront of a marketer’s mind these days surely.

Clair Humphries said...

So true. I was drawn to 'The Slap' purely because of the title at first! I do like a quirky title, but often I think simple works best.

Paul Sampson said...

Did you deliberately wrap up this topic with "The Fifth Element"?

But actually I wondered about your use of the terms 'strong' (and 'weak'). You've used this terminology before in describing nouns and verbs.

The trouble is that I immediately think of 'strong nouns' being words like man, child, ox, etc - i.e. those old Anglo-Saxon words with irregular/umlauted plurals. And the term 'strong verb' similarly first brings to mind examples like swim (swam, swum) and drink (drank, drunk) - otherwise known as verbs exhibiting gradation.

This is not a complaint! Obviously the two uses of this terminology aren't the same, and it's up to me to switch context to a different and perfectly reasonable use. But it still leaves me with a bit of a problem because I don't actually know what you mean by a 'strong noun'.

In Lingualand one may immediately classify the verb 'think' as strong and the verb 'walk' as weak. All you need do is look at their past tenses. This works for a large class of languages - not just English. But when you say that such-and-such is a strong verb, it's like you just seem to know and that it should be obvious. But I don't know and feel excluded from full citizenship of Literaland. I feel obliged to nod sagely in agreement to mask my mortification! Do you have a definition of what constitutes a strong noun? Is Elephant strong? Is Vole weak? How does one know?

Sarah Duncan said...

Marilyn, you're right, it's all part of marketing.

Jim, your wife is spot on. Men Who Hate Women would immediately exclude 50% of the readership. Just 'Girls' is an odd title for a TV wouldn't make me watch.

Clair, The Slap is a great title, short, simple and intriguing. And that's exactly what it's about, too.

Paul, I was wondering if anyone spotted the 5th Element - I was going to bring in a reference to the character Mila Jojovich played, but couldn't remember the name - LeeLo?

By strong nouns and verbs I mean ones that do a lot of work, usually by creating vivid and specific pictures. If I write "Joe came into the room", it doesn't tell me much more than the basic fact that a few minutes ago Joe was outside the room and now he's in it. If I write "Joe burst into the room," or "Joe sidled into the room" I create an image that gives lots more information.

So both 'elephant' and 'vole' are stronger than 'animal', but 'vole' is stronger than 'elephant' because if I asked someone to list 10 animals, say, I reckon elephant would be in many people's lists whereas vole wouldn't. So vole is quirky and unusual, which makes it a better - or stronger - word for a writer to use.

Hope that helps - and thanks for asking; I should have explained before.