Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 20

It’s day 20 of my September blogging challenge.

The letter is T

and the topic is TITLES

The title of a book/story is something writers often struggle with. And yet, it plays a significant role when a book is trying to reach out to its potential readers. A reader might decide whether to pick up the book of a novelist they don’t know, or read a short story by a writer they’ve never heard of, because of the title. It might just be the thing that influences them to take the novel off the shelf, or start reading that particular story in an anthology or magazine.

Creating a title is as important as any other piece in the narrative puzzle. But sometimes writers can’t find an appropriate title for their work or beginning writers might say I haven’t bothered with a title yet. But it’s been said that’ssimilar to calling your child Hey, you until he or she starts walking!

Titles lie at the heart of a work, shaping its identity, its personality, and hinting at its layers of meaning. David Lodge says ‘The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.’

For that reason, it’s a good idea  to avoid summary titles. If the story is about a boy called George who runs away, it’s better not to call it ‘George runs away’ or ‘George escapes’. The aim should be to let the title enhance the subtext of the work or prompt the reader to consider the story in a new light.

Sometimes titles are only the name of the main character – probably more common in titles from the past. Though this can convey something of the flavour of the novel, suggesting the power and individuality of the  character, I think this sort of title lacks the intrigue that a more complex title can offer. Compare ‘Emma’, ‘Jane Eyre’ or even ‘Anna Karenina with ‘I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings’, ‘Light in the Snow’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. These convey more vividly the mysteries of the world inside the book’s covers.

I would say the same thing hold true for novels that have place in their titles: ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Washington Square’, ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Other titles point up the underlying themes of the novel: ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Crime and ‘Punishment’, ‘Atonement’. But I’m not sure that I want my ‘take’ on the book’s morality forced on me so much by the title.

Titles are sometimes only one word: Rushdie’s ‘Shame’, AL Kennedy’s ‘Day’, Jim Crace’s ‘Quarantine’, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn’s ‘Unravelling’. If successful, these can pack an initial punch, but also reveal the subtleties the novel has to offer.

Some time ago, I remember reading that the majority of novels in the top ten best-sellers had the word ‘The’ in the title – and that was after I’d decided on the title ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ for the title of my next novel. Certainly, this was true on the occasions I checked the paperback novel charts. The Fifty Shades phenomenon has somewhat skewed those results, but even so, Saturday’s Guardian weekly charts, four out of the ten top-selling books began with the word The.

I would be interesting to know what you think makes a great title. As a reader, what draws you to a title? If you write, what do you try to achieve with your titles? Do you give them enough thought?

I’ve mentioned a novel I read over the summer – ‘Painter of Silence’. I enjoyed the book and I love its title. It feels poignant and full of possibility. I don’t completely understand it and am drawn to its ambiguity. The idea of painting silence is puzzling, and therefore intrigues me.

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8 Comments

  1. I think titles are immensely tricksy things that can trip up the unwary writer. Interesting that you mention names, I am instantly put off novels that feature girls names, yet Jane Eyre is one of my favourites.
    I have Painter of Silence on my Kindle and in a week or so will be enjoying it.
    I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on how to ‘work up’ a title … something I’m not terribly adept at IMHO.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Interesting that you say Jane Eyre is one of your favourites, Polly, but suppose you saw it (noticed it even) on a shelf in Waterstones now? Would you pick it up? Difficult to get a title noticed in today’s rushing, pushing world, unless it’s written by one of the big names. I wouldn’t have found Georgina Hastings, had it not be for her Orange shortlisting. I’ve just borrowed another of her novels from the library, so I really hope I like this one too. (Not on titles, but it’s all linked!)

  3. Christine says:

    As with all of your posts, this got me thinking about why any of us choose to read or buy or borrow one book over another. For me, it’s often a recommendation. I’ve read a review or heard one on the radio, or, more often, a friend will recommend a book. I don’t recall ever having been attracted, or having for that matter, rejected, a book, solely on the basis of its title but then, there’s also the cover to take into account and the blurb on the back. But they are important and it’s the one part of the writing process I rather enjoy. I love it when I hit on what I think is the right title, in my case that’s for short stories. Somehow, I just seem to ‘know’ when it works. Having said that, I’ve recently received feedback on a piece of flash fiction where I was told the title wasn’t apt. It was my favourite title ever! What does she know!

  4. Lindsay says:

    I think perhaps titles work on us (readers) at a subliminal level. So they have an effect without necessarily realising. Perhaps the ones we notice more are the particularly successful ones. For a writer, a good title can help keep you on track while you’re writing, so that you focus on what’s at the heart of the novel.
    In the end, did you agree with the non-apt title comment, or not?

  5. Christine says:

    No, I didn’t although I am well aware that it pays to listen to criticism! But, in my opinion it’s apt and I intend keeping it.

  6. Lindsay says:

    But having listened, you have to make your own judgement in the end based on what you believe is right, so well done!

  7. It occurred to me as my mind was mulling over what you said about titles: Thomas Hardy’s titles all contained a THE in them and some of them included names of people (Tess, Jude) and names of places (Casterbridge). I dont know that any conclusion can be drawn from this but its quite interesting to see it!

  8. Lindsay says:

    I think it’s more a ‘The’ at the beginning rather than in the middle, so The Mayor of Casterbridge rather than Jude the Obscure. But I think it’s really interesting!

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