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How Titles May Bore, Confuse, or Anger Readers (and Ways to Prevent It)

by Sheila Hollinghead

 Titles are the first impression a potential reader receives of your writing ability. Attention-grabbing titles sometimes elude even the best authors. If not done correctly, titles may bore, confuse, or even anger potential readers. Let’s examine how.

Boring!

If the title is boring and mundane, readers will likely think the book is also. A glance at Amazon’s best sellers shows the importance of titles. One of the most popular books is The Hunger Games. Even if nothing else were known about this book, the title still intrigues. What if the title had been The Panem Games? Would that elicit more than a yawn? (As an added bonus, the title, The Hunger Games, works on more than one level. The hunger to be loved and accepted and the subterfuge used by the main character to obtain this acceptance may also be inferred from it.)

Stephenie Meyer used Forks for a title until her agent insisted on a change and they finally decided on TwilightThe title is the first meeting we have with potential readers. We don’t want to blow it by boring them.

Confusing

Another problem is that the title may convey something the writer did not intend to convey. For example, Steven Tyler is enjoying a boost in popularity right now.  His band, Aerosmith, had a hit song entitled “Walk This Way” that deals with sexual themes. A book with the same title might deal with pornography or, at least, graphic sex. A Christian seeing the title may believe it portrays the Christian walk.

Real-life examples of such unfortunate titles are The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice and Still Stripping After 25 Years (a book about quilting).

Confusion abounds when readers see such titles. It’s best to ask opinions, and listen, to ensure there’s no misunderstanding.

Angering

Similar to the second problem, but done intentionally, is the title that takes advantage of something already popular. An example might be a children’s book called Rudolph’s Journey. Seeing this emblazoned on the cover, children will think the book is about Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. Imagine their surprise when the book has nothing to do with reindeer or Christmas. Let’s not rip off titles to help our sales. The writer who does so will run the risk of disappointing or angering readers.


How then does a writer come up with an interesting, eye-catching title?

Let’s look at some common sources for book titles. One place to find book titles is within the book itself. Several aspects of a book may serve as a potential title. For example, a character’s name may be used, such as in the case of Jane Eyre. Or, the setting of the book, The House of the Seven Gables, or even the setting combined with the character’s name, Anne of Green Gables.

An event central to be book’s plot may also be used, such as an Agatha Christie book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Or, something that pertains to one of the characters, i.e., The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans or The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Although it’s best not to be blatant, the book’s theme may also become a title. Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind (that contains a double meaning) are excellent examples of titles showcasing the themes of the books.

Sometimes objects of special significance may serve, such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated words will also make for interesting titles. The Lovely Bones is a prime example.

Another source of book titles would be other literary works. For example, many well-known books are titled from lines of poetry. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a line from a John Donne poem. The Catcher in the Rye was derived from “Comin’ thru the Rye” by Robert Burns. Even simple poems, such as nursery rhymes, may serve, such as another Christie book, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

Another source of great titles is the Bible. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Exodus by Leon Uris are three well-known examples.

And, of course, Shakespeare has been the source of many book titles. Another Christie book, Taken at the Flood, comes from Act four of Julius Caesar. The entire quote is:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

In other words, pilfer titles from other written sources, especially well-known classics, but be sure to do so with care. The title must convey something essential about the book. Remember, don’t use another book unethically simply to gain notice.

Dig deep. Look for the underlying theme of the book. Play with words. Search other well-known books or poems to give you inspiration. Above all, do not bore, confuse, or anger potential readers. After all, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. And, it could very well be, the tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune!

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Sheila Hollinghead is an eclectic OCD, ADD, and LOL (lots of letters) author. She has started her series “In the Shadow of the Cedar” with Thundersnow. Follow her blogging adventures at Rise, Write, Shine!

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11 comments on “How Titles May Bore, Confuse, or Anger Readers (and Ways to Prevent It)

  1. elainemcooper
    April 11, 2012

    Great post, Shelia! Gives an author lots to consider.

  2. elainemcooper
    April 11, 2012

    And if only I could spell your name correctly with less than half a cup of coffee on board here in Pacific Coast time!! LOL!

  3. Deborah Malone
    April 11, 2012

    This was a great post! It is very relavent to writing!
    Debbie

  4. Kay
    April 11, 2012

    Great stuff, Sheila! I absolutely love the title “Thundersnow.” I had never heard of a thundersnow and enjoyed reading about how you came about choosing the name. There are zillions (well, maybe not that many) of blogs and if I followed them all, I wouldn’t have time to write. But yours is definitely worth coming back to!

    • Sheila Odom Hollinghead
      April 11, 2012

      Kay, I loved the title also! I guess I should have mentioned that in the article–weather phenomena! LOL

      Thanks so much!

  5. E G Lewis
    April 11, 2012

    Good advice. A very insightful person devised the interlocking titles for the James Herriot All Creaturs Great and Small series using an old Anglican hymn. The Eye of the Needle is another good one. I always felt Youngblood Hawke was an arresting title . What about The Day of the Jackal?? We could start a parlor game. ‘o)

    • Sheila Odom Hollinghead
      April 11, 2012

      Yes, I love the titles of the Herriot books (and they’re also among my favorite books!).

      Great fun, E.G.!

  6. Cecilia Marie Pulliam
    April 11, 2012

    Great post, Sheila! And thanks again for your help in chat with my title!

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This entry was posted on April 11, 2012 by in Writing Tips and tagged , .

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