In recent posts I’ve talked about what makes a good title, a title that failed, and one that I think works – 317am. Coming up with a good title is never simple or mechanical; it’s far more intuitive than that. Just learned, in fact, that Lewis Carroll nearly called his masterpiece Alice’s Hour in Elfland. Unthinkable.
Here are some title templates that can be helpful when you get stuck. These are intended as brain-joggers:
Alliteration is the ancient poetic technique of beginning nearby words with the same consonant sound. Spiro Agnew (or rather his speechwriter, the late William Safire) provided a famous example with the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” to describe the Washington press corps. Agnew also scored with “pusillanimous pussyfooters.”
As with repeated musical notes, there’s something inherently pleasing in repeated sounds, and alliterative titles also seem to ratchet up the memorability quotient. Think of Jane Austen, who began her best novel with First Impressions – not a bad title to describe her plot but far less euphonious than the well-balanced Pride and Prejudice she settled on.
Then there was John Updike who had such a success with his early novel Rabbit Run (based on a protagonist who’s nicknamed Rabbit) that he rolled on with Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. (Spoiler warning in that last one.)
Alliterative titles seem particularly appealing to those of the conservative political persuasion. Barry Goldwater set the standard for self-importance in 1960 with The Conscience of a Conservative, and now we have Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, perhaps a sideways homage to Goldwater’s book. Which brings us to the allusive title.
The Apt Allusive
Allusion is the poetic technique of borrowing a phrase from an earlier work without actually attaching a footnote. An allusive title can give your little opus the beauty and memorability of poetry as well as a certain intimation of immortality – all borrowed from the great work you’ve hooked your wagon to. It’s a win-win. You assume the reader gets the allusion and appreciates your brilliance, or if not, you get the credit for the felicitous phrase without being called up for plagiarism.
Think of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, based on a line from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Romantic poets are particularly good sources since they do not shy away from elevating their rhetoric. The 1950s playwright William Inge took his title for an unfortunate tale of young lovers in small-town Kansas from Wordsworth’s lines about the purity of the child’s vision of the world: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” And for the longest time I thought Splendor in the Grass is what happened when Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty went on a picnic.
The Bible is also a grand allusivator. It’s hard to remember that Hemingway’s original title for The Sun Also Rises (source: Ecclesiates elevating the troubles of a lost generation) was Fiesta. Ingmar Bergman did not make up Through a Glass Darkly, though it sounds like the perfect tag line for most of his movies.
The Oh So Ironic
This one relies on collusion between the author and certain readers. It’s the flip side of Groucho’s remark that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have himself as a member. The author is saying, ”I’m self-aware enough to dare this title and my ideal reader is hip enough to get that I’m only half-serious.’
The ubiquitous Dave Eggers reinvigorated this one a few years back with his autobiographical A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Clearly, we’re all meant to see that Dave is really humble and that he’s downplaying through self-parody the author’s usual presumption that he has written something worth reading. Another in this line is a blog I recently stumbled across called Nothing To Say & Saying It. I didn’t linger there.
The hot title that I’m reading at the moment is Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. There’s a sense in which Shields means the “Manifesto” literally, but it’s also hard to imagine that any 21st century writer is using the old Manifesto title without at least single quotes around it.
The great-granddaddy ironist in all English literature is Laurence Sterne with his early novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. On one level this parodies the 18th century convention of naming novels according to one’s social status. (See The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.) But the word “Opinions” here is true with a vengeance. The joke is that Stern’s first-person narrator spends so much delivering his opinions about everything in t
he universe that he has to keep reminding himself to return to the life story he’s presumably telling.
Death the Elevator
Just about any title with the word “Death” starkly applied has a way of concentrating the reader’s mind. Much of America’s 20th century canon could not resist the sweet call of death. There are Willa Cather’s Death Comes for Archbishop, James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. and Robert Frost’s poem “Death of the Hired Man.”
When I was in grad school in the 1970s, two literary critics battled it out for heavyweight champ of English and American letters. In one corner, out of the University of Toronto, was Northrop Frye, whose big book was the exhaustive, pseudo-scientific Anatomy of Criticism. His opponent: the Wildman of SUNY Buffalo, Leslie Fiedler, whose grand opus was Love and Death in the American Novel. Which would you pick up in a bookstore?
Fiedler had a way with titles; he once titled a journal article “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey,” quoting the slave Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
More recently, an article by Ted Genoways in Mother Jones set off debates online with its provocative title “The Death of Fiction.” Only later did we learn that it was some anonymous magazine editor who provided the lighter fluid by slapping that title on the Genoways piece. What if that editor had gone alliterative and called it “A Lament for the Loss of Little Literary Magazines”? Would the article have achieved the same Internet notoriety? I think not.
This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve left out the Powerful Possessive, the popular The Blank of Blank, and the unpretentious Two Friends Joined By And.
Got any favorite title templates of your own?