When people hear you do a bit of writing, naturally they want to know what you write. If it’s a book, they ask what it’s about or what it’s called. Let’s face it, a book needs a name with some pizazz. If you can’t come up with a snappy attention-getter, will a reader bother peeking at that first chapter you worried over?
There’s a lot riding on the name. Would a rose really smell as sweet to Juliet if Romeo called it a radish? We’re drawn to the sound as much as the scent of a rose. Labels matter. The Agony and the Ecstasy is an awesome title. But conjuring a title like that might have involved more agony than ecstasy.
There are tons of tips on how to come up with zippy labels that supposedly sell books. You can make a list of words and phrases relating to the story or characters. You alter and rearrange them as you write your story, until you have a good feel for the right combos. Then test market on your friends or beta readers; with any luck, you might end up owning that name. An original title might even end up a cliché you and everybody else owns forever (Catch 22). Better to double check on Google or Amazon, where you could find authors who already “own” your title, from books published years ago. You end up in a Catch 22.
Titles are better when brief, relevant, and provocative, but not always all three. Take a 1970’s movie called Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, hardly brief but so sweeping and all-encompassing it seems to embrace . . . well, every damn thing. Consider titles of books, movies, plays, and songs that really grab you. Some are simple and direct (Psycho), some a tad exotic (Casablanca). Imagine if Bogart had insisted on calling it Rick’s Café (or, even more inept, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which sounds like a sitcom but actually was the title of the original play the film was based on.) Some hit on a core word or phrase (Spellbound) that echoes through your head with a certain tonal vibration just short of eliciting an ear worm. (The Spellbound soundtrack is kind of ear worm stuff.) Others stick with you (Rear Window), vivid images lingering in your mind’s eye long after a forgotten story. Some lure you in (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as opposed to its earlier version (Watch the Sky), which might induce a stiff neck. Then there’s a special one for me (Sophie’s Choice) that compels you to read about the choice this Sophie person has to make.
In future plagues, if and when, what provocative titles will help tell our stories? Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, a recently published thriller he imagined prior to COVID-19, tells of a virus that “brings the world to its knees.” Wright is an award-winning journalist and author; even so, such a scenario demands a doozy of a title to encompass the boredom, anxiety, terror, and death—and everything in-between—that would be heaped on humanity.
Audacity tempts me to launch my next project with a primal heading that I can build a story around. Writing instructors recommend the other way around—fit a title to what you’ve written. But scribes often practice a kind of reverse engineering, creating the very end of the story first, then a plot and characters to fit the ending. Why not a bolder approach: start with a title you adore and buckle up for a wild ride of crafting a whole story to fit it. What’s in a Name? by Robert Ronning
I like to jot down terse phrases I consider rather catchy or curious, like, He Didn’t Know What Hit Him . . . It All Happened So Quickly . . . Gone in a Puff of Smoke . . . The Geeks Have a Word for It, the latter likely a slow nonfiction. Of course, there are titles relating to heartbreak and regret that authors keep using because they’re irresistible (Hindsight is 20/20).
My list includes titles from old black and white Hollywood movies. Writer-director Preston Sturges had some winners (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) that don’t disappoint, especially when you learn in the latter film what the “miracle” is. While dictating his memoir at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, sadly, Sturges died of a heart attack. His memoir title proved prophetic: The Events Leading Up to My Death … not to mention inevitable.
French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s autobiography The Wheel of Fortune seems a rather humdrum title. But to match her stormy, passionate life of only 47 years, what could be better than the label for her collection of French songs: I Regret Nothing, words Piaf will own forever, a testament to a life of courage, passion and pain.
I’m unlikely ever to write a memoir, but Piaf inspires me with a title I might own. I could call it I Have Forgotten Everything.
Robert Ronning is author of Wild Call to Boulder Field—An Arizona Trail Adventure. More of his writing can be found on his Web site www.RobertRonningAuthor.com