By Shawn StJean
As I’m doing the pre-writing on my next novel, I’m consistently struck dumb by the apparent lack of thought that has gone into 90% of the novel titles on the shelves. Or perhaps, authors get so used to their working titles that they eventually begin to feel right, or at least familiar. What’s apparently forgotten is that they will feel 100% UNfamiliar to new readers seeking their next vicarious adventure, love story, or escape. This overlooking of THE privileged position in all the thousands of words you’ll write and revise seems especially astonishing, given that if YOU don’t have a well-known name (or publisher) already, it’s up to those few words to carry your reputation. So don’t be like the big corporate bean-counters, with their stables of mediocrity–distinguish yourself as a craftsman, right from the start. A thinker, planner, and doer.
I don’t wish to pick on anyone’s work in particular. A scan of the Best Sellers lists on any given day will confirm my complaint. So I’ll attempt to offer something constructive instead, which are my three or four humble thoughts on how to devise a title that makes potential readers say “I want to read that!” WITHOUT seeing a cover (your cover being an entire, arcane art in itself).
Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, and Half-Rhyme
Poets (unlike songwriters) know that a full rhyme scheme will often seem archaic or juvenile, if not downright childish–which may be what you’re going for. But if not, half-ryhme, with the dominant vowel sound, will often sound fluid to readers without their necessarily knowing why. Ditto with repetition of consonant sounds. Compare these:
Wild, Wild, West
[ ] Hornet’s Nest
Or these twentieth-century classics:
The Cat in the Hat
The Grapes of Wrath
Of course, the latter is not even half-rhyme (perhaps a quarter,) but it has the additional advantage of what, in its day, was a Well Known Allusion. Others of this type:
In Dubious Battle (refers to Milton’s Paradise Lost)
East of Eden (biblical–Genesis)
Ulysses (Homer’s Odyssey)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Shakespeare’s Macbeth–really hard to miss with the Bard)
Third, there are certain Key Words or Phrases that, as cliched as they may have become, seem to make readers comfortable, or intrigued, such as:
The Last of. . .
The Day of. . .
Girl (or a girl’s or woman’s name, like Carrie, Rebecca, etc.) Personally, I find this a cop-out, but it’s hard to argue with success. Go Ask Alice, an allusion to Lewis Carroll by way of Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit,” seems so much more daring to me.
And, there’s the ever-popular subtitle, “A Novel.” (bonus hint–if your title and cover are doing their jobs, you should not need to say this)
Finally, there are some great titles that don’t have much going for them other than the Thought That Went Into Them, such as:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
You Only Live Twice
Leaves of Grass
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Nightmare on Elm Street
Cabin in the Woods
(Okay, so I snuck a few non-novel titles in there. Those last two are so utterly generic that they seem universal, like genre meta-commentary.)