Would Gone With the Wind have become a best seller if Margaret Mitchell had called it “The Spoiled Belle”? Would your English teacher have made you read “Becalmed” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge instead of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? What if Ernest Hemingway had called The Old Man and the Sea “Gone Fishing”?
Despite all the agonizing modern authors go through over cover designs, fonts, page layouts and illustrations, there are only two things routinely visible on the bookshelf, table of contents, or magazine cover—the author’s name and the title.
The author’s name is a brand—like DelMonte. If you’ve been around for a while and built a reputation for consistently superior writing, a reader of the non-relative persuasion may scoop up at your latest offering no matter what you name it. If you’re an unknown you can make that time-crunched browser want to investigate your work rather than the next one by giving it a great title.
Consider this: if Stephen King wasn’t a household name, would Cujo or Carrie be good titles? No. But King’s reputation for producing outstanding horror stories makes these titles mere differentiators between one assuredly great tale and another. In his case, you can tell if you’re getting a horror story by the simplicity of his title—and the fact that he is Stephen King.
But when King ventures away from straight horror, his titles become more intriguing. Stand By Me, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are non-horror fare. This is an author who knows it’s a good thing to differentiate his products.
In the universe beyond Stephen King, the title has only one purpose. It is the hook of all hooks. Tell the truth. Would you have even started reading this essay if I’d called it How To Name Your Story? I wouldn’t. Not even after I’d finished yawning.
So what makes a good title?
N.K. Wagner is publisher and executive editor of Page & Spine.
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