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STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

STORY TITLES, PART 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title

Welcome to a part two of our series on story titles. In Part 1 we discussed what a title is, where it comes from, and what it should do. In part we move on to some helpful tips on how to select the right title for your story.

The reason finding the right title is such a big deal is because it tells us so much about the story: genre, concept, tone, theme, target audience, focus, and viewpoint.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that practically everything?

Yup. That’s why your title needs to absolutely nail it. Even a slight change to any one of these components alters your story, and thus the title.

So we’ve created this quick checklist to follow when brainstorming titles for your creative work:

The “Do” List

  1. Explain it in a nutshell. Does the title explain the overall idea, concept or premise of the story in a nutshell? Look for inspiration in your theme.
  2. Identify the focus. Does it accurately convey the main focus of the story? If it’s about everything that happens in a certain place or time period, then that may be your title. If it follows an individual’s perspective, then make the title personal to that character or narrator.
  3. Know your audience. Does it reflect the right genre, target audience and age group? Always assume the audience already knows the genre and will expect that genre to be reflected in the story material. Also don’t forget to target the title toward the right age group. There’s a reason a slew of successful books have titles like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, etc. have become so popular — they know their target audience.
  4. Be clever. A clever title is a great way to catch someone’s interest. TV is the best at this: GREY’S ANATOMY and IMPASTOR are two great examples.
  5. Be succinct. In today’s mainstream market, the shorter the title, the better. There’s a reason you see a lot of one- and two-word titles in movies these days: BATTLESHIP, TMNT, GRAVITY, KILL BILL, WAR HORSE, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (cheating a bit, but hey, it works), etc.
  6. Be specific. Never opt for something generic when you can make the title absolutely specific to the story contained within. What’s better: FANTASY ADVENTURE or FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS?
  7. Make it pop. Sure, I sound like a stereotypical Hollywood producer when I say this, but there’s a reason it’s a stereotype–because that’s one way to sell your story right from the cover. Remember: You aren’t selling your story so much as the idea of your story. Get our attention right away by grabbing us by the lapels rather than politely waving from across the street.

The “Do Not” List

  1. Don’t look at the plot. This is a common mistake, and an understandable one, but the reason it doesn’t usually work is because while the plot may be what the story is about on the surface, the theme is what the story is really about, so titles based on the plot tend to feel superficial and not exactly on target.
  2. Don’t make it unrelated. Although this seems obvious at first, this is another common mistake when storytellers title their creative works. Your title needs to tie into your story in some way, shape, or form.
  3. Don’t mislead the audience. Another common mistake for storytellers of all levels, it’s important to not mislead your audience in regard to tone, genre, or subject matter. This is one of the easiest ways to violate your audience’s expectations in a way that will make them hate the story, no matter how good or bad it is. An audience who buys movie tickets to see what sounds like a horror movie will be more than a little angry when it turns out to be a romantic comedy.
  4. Don’t be generic. This can’t be overstated. Every time a script or novel with a generic title like “Four People” or “Super Warrior” comes across my desk I instantly groan because my first instinct is to assume the storytelling itself is at about the same level as the titling, which is all too often the case. Compare: A MAN to I, CLAUDIUS.
  5. Don’t play it safe. Go bold. Get creative. Experiment with everything and anything. Do research if you have to, but never ever go for bland when you go for bold and interesting.
  6. Don’t limit yourself. Believe it or not, you don’t have to settle on just one title. Create a whole bag of them, or keep a few in your back pocket you can sling around depending on who you are pitching the story to. Eventually you will find a title that sticks.

Still having trouble?

You’re not alone.

Try this:

Think Like a Producer / Editor

Writers tend to be pretty bad at coming up with a title (sorry folks, but it’s true). Producers and book editors, on other hand, tend to be pretty great at it. Why? Because they think about how they can SELL the story, and they only need to know the concept, format and target audience to figure it out. So if you’re still feeling title-y challenged, try thinking like a producer or editor. Think about how they would pitch or sell the idea to someone who doesn’t know anything about writing, filmmaking, or storytelling. Forget the story (sacrilege, I know), stick to just the concept and target audience, and keep the title as short as possible, preferably only one or two words.

In theory, knowing the rest of the details about the story gives you the upper hand, since you are able to craft a better and more accurate title. Unfortunately, because of writers’ tendency toward bad titles and producers’/editors’ considerable skill at it, many stories end up with a catchy title that doesn’t quite nail the story down as accurately as it could. Admittedly, some of these titles do the job of selling the story amazingly well. The only gripe is that they somewhat miss the mark.

Sometimes it’s fairly obvious when a producer or editor steps in to sell a story with a snappier title:

  • BREAKING BAD: Is the concept really about someone raises hell (to “break bad”) against authority? Or is it about a good man who does bad things for the right reasons and soon finds himself stuck being a bad guy?
  • INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS: Yes, this happens and the invaders do “snatch” bodies, but the original title, THE PUPPETMASTERS, suggests a more accurate portrayal of the intelligence and cunning behind the invaders’ tactics rather than the B-movie feel the title gives it.
  • JAWS: Both the movie and the book it’s based on share this title, and its working titles include THE STILLNESS IN THE WATER, LEVIATHAN RISING, THE JAWS OF DEATH, etc. (I DID say writers were bad at coming up with titles, right?), and is an externalized version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.
  • LONE SURVIVOR: Granted, the book (and film adaptation) really is about being a “lone survivor” of a military expedition gone wrong, but could easily have been titled any number of other things.
  • METROPOLIS: It’s UTOPIA by another name, suggesting we get to see a many different walks of life within this little microcosm. Buuuuut we don’t. Still, it sells the idea spectacularly.

What do all of these have in common? Despite not being storytelling bullseyes, all were and are hip, catchy, and above all, immensely popular. (And these area only a few examples of many thousands.)

When it comes to titling your own story, get into the sales mindset and try to brainstorm the juiciest, catchiest, flashiest title you can come up with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep it, but it will get you thinking in the right direction. And who knows, maybe you’ll strike title gold!

UNTIL NEXT TIME…

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Hopefully you’ve been able to gather enough grains of knowledge about titles to make you stories all the more appealing.

That’s it for now, and never stop writing!

(And yes, there’s going to be a Part 3: Story Titles in Practice.)

 

In the meantime, if you need help with your own story titles, don’t hesitate to reach out!

STORY TITLES, PART 1: Where Does the Title Come From?

In my profession I constantly run into writers who have a problem with story titles. Most writers and storytellers don’t know how to come with a solid title. They ask:

  • Where does a title come from?
  • What makes a good title?
  • How come some titles work while others do not?

For most, it’s a mystifying subject with little enlightenment from the experts.

Guess what?

It’s not a mystery. At least, it won’t be by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

So…

WHAT IS A TITLE?

A title is a koan, something to be meditated on, a rumination on theme, the essence of the story or project, a.k.a. your story in a nutshell. A title is the shortest possible pitch for your creative work. Think of it this way: your full manuscript is the complete version, shortened into a synopsis, then a pitch, a logline, and (at the most succinct level) the title. Therefore your title should sum up the idea of the story in a nutshell, implying genre, tone, central idea, theme, and focus.

Sounds simple, right?

Yeah, no. Nailing down what a title encompasses is the easy part. Finding the right title remains a daunting task, especially if it’s going to be perfectly fitted to your unique story.

So…

WHERE DOES THE TITLE COME FROM?

In general, the best titles come directly from the concept, premise, central idea, or theme. Often these ideas are the same, or at the very least, cross over considerably. This makes sense, since these elements of the story convey the most information about it. Your story’s genre and target audience are also important factors to keep in mind since they directly affect who will decide to experience the story, regardless of medium. Lastly, who the story is about and from whose viewpoint is also helpful to make the title immediate and personal.

In short, these four things determine where your title comes from:

  1. GENRE: implies not only the type of story, but the tone as well.
  2. CONCEPT: includes the premise, central idea and theme.
  3. AUDIENCE: determines who the story is targeted at and what age group is most appropriate.
  4. FOCUS: indicates who the story is about and who is telling it.

In that order. Why? The order of precedence indicates their importance in marketing your story. While the ideal title indicates all four points, not every title can do that…and that’s okay.

But enough about theory…

STORY TITLES IN PRACTICE

Now that we know about titles in theory, let’s poke around some real world examples to find out how they function in practice. There are copious examples here, I know, but they are highly informative and illustrate how much the title matters.

Titles Based on Genre or Tone

Horror, Action, Westerns and Comedies tend to base their titles around the genre and tone. Note how each of these titles make both obvious from the get-go:

HORROR:

  • DRACULA
  • THE EXORCIST
  • FINAL DESTINATION
  • NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
  • POLTERGEIST
  • SAW
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

ACTION:

  • BLADE
  • DIE HARD
  • ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
  • GLADIATOR
  • LETHAL WEAPON
  • SPEED
  • SUPERCOP
  • TERMINATOR

WESTERN:

  • BLAZING SADDLES
  • THE GUNFIGHTER
  • HIGH NOON
  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
  • THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
  • THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE
  • TRUE GRIT
  • WILD WILD WEST

COMEDY:

  • THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
  • ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE
  • BAD SANTA
  • DUCK SOUP
  • DUMB & DUMBER
  • GALAXY QUEST
  • MONSTER-IN-LAW
  • REVENGE OF THE NERDS
  • SCARY MOVIE
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • SPACEBALLS
  • SUPER TROOPERS
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Note how the horror titles tell us not only that it’s a horror story, but what type of horror (supernatural, slasher, etc.) so we know what kind of tone to expect. Action movies tend to use terse, information-packed action verbs in their titles. Compare the difference between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a western, to THE SEVEN SAMURAI, a samurai action film (an Eastern “Western,” so to speak). Also note how many comedy titles are absurd, reveal the funny concept, or is a play on a well-known phrase or title from the genre it’s spoofing. We know right away if it’s going to be a spoof or a ridiculously silly story.

We can change the implied tone of the story by altering the length and tone of the title as well. A romance like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND becomes a very different film with a title like MINDWIPE, JOEL & CLEMENTINE or THE ART OF FORGETTING, a sci-fi thriller, romcom, and introspective artistic drama, respectively.

Titles Based on Concept, Premise or Central Idea

These titles give us the concept, premise or central idea right up front, letting us know exactly what we’re in for:

  • CATCH 22
  • DJANGGO UNCHAINED
  • FAMILY GUY
  • FOUNDATION
  • A GAME OF THRONES
  • HALO
  • HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
  • INCEPTION
  • INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
  • THE NOTEBOOK
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE
  • ROSEMARY’S BABY
  • THE SHINING
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Many of these are simply the concept itself (in very short form, naturally). Sometimes they reveal the story’s inciting incident:

  • 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
  • BLACK HAWK DOWN
  • A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF EARTH
  • LOST IN SPACE
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE

Sometimes they hint at the ending (spoiler warning!):

  • THE BRASS VERDICT
  • CHILDHOOD’S END
  • KILL BILL, VOL.2
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD

So now when someone asks you: “What’s ROSEMARY’S BABY about?” You can reply with a smart-aleck quip like: “Care to take a guess?”

Titles Based on Theme

Titles based on theme work best when the story is theme-heavy. Note how the theme is intimately tied into the concept, premise, or central idea in each of these:

  • ANIMAL FARM
  • DANGEROUS WOMEN
  • THE FOUNTAINHEAD
  • LOVE ACTUALLY
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • OFFICE SPACE
  • THE ROAD
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
  • WICKED

More rarely, the title may sum things up with a thematic sentiment:

  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
  • LATHE OF HEAVEN
  • MY WAR GONE BY I MISS IT SO
  • ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
  • THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Note how long these titles are. That’s because they target a more cerebral, sophisticated audience.

Which brings to mind…

Titles Based on Target Audience

These titles tell us what type of person and age group is ideal for each kind of story:

  • MY CAT FROM HELL
  • THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
  • HUNGER GAMES
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE… (take your pick)
  • RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD
  • WINGS OF DESIRE
  • MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
  • THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
  • DIE HARD
  • DIRTY HARRY
  • FULL METAL JACKET
  • THE GODFATHER
  • THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
  • THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
  • CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST

Change the title and you change the target audience or age group. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE targets women ages 25+, otherwise it may have just been called ZOOKEEPERS or A ZOO IN WARSAW. HUNGER GAMES aims at a younger target audience. Change the audience to a males aged 14-24 and you end up with something like BATTLE ROYALE, or THE GAMES for a slightly older age group, non-gender biased. Target girls aged 14-24 with THE GIRL FROM DISTRICT 12. Want to make it more gory? Try BLOODBATH. Sci-fi thriller? DISTRICT 12 or THE DISTRICT.

Can you guess the target audience and age group for PART-TIME INDIAN, WINGS OF DESIRE or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

Titles Based on Focus or Viewpoint

These titles indicate who lies at the central focus of the story and from whose viewpoint we will experience that story. This is usually achieved by highlighting the protagonist, central character, a group of characters or even a fundamental location:

Titles centered around an individual (protagonist or central character):

  • AKIRA
  • ALCATRAZ VS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS
  • ANNA KARENINA
  • BARTON FINK
  • BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
  • BEOWULF
  • THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
  • FORREST GUMP
  • HARRY POTTER
  • I, CLAUDIUS
  • JANE EYRE
  • MOBY DICK
  • MY NAME IS EARL
  • STEPPENWOLF
  • SULA
  • UGLY BETTY

This idea can be expanded to a family or group entity, usually multi-generational:

  • ALL MY SONS
  • BELLEFLEUR
  • DUCK DYNASTY
  • FOUNDATION
  • FRIENDS
  • SEVEN SAMURAI
  • THE THORN BIRDS
  • X-MEN

Titles based on a central location:

  • 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
  • 90210
  • BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
  • CHEERS
  • JURASSIC PARK
  • MELROSE PLACE
  • RED MARS
  • A TALE OF TWO CITIES
  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

We can change the focus from one of these areas to another rather easily. A group story like FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS becomes an individual, point-of-view story with the title GANDALF, indicating he’s either protagonist, narrator, or the epicenter around which the story revolves. Title based on a location, such as CHEERS or INTO THE WOODS, implies that the action centers around that site and everything which occurs in it, with main plotlines more evenly distributed than if it was a single character’s story. Compare CHEERS to, say, FRASIER. Frasier is a character in both, but the central figure in only one. Can you guess which? Compare a shows an ensemble TV show like FULL HOUSE to REBA or ROSEANNE. Both are multi-camera sitcoms with an extended family living in the same house, yet the focus is clearly biased toward one specific character in REBA and ROSEANNE.

To be continued…

We’ve gone over a lot in this article, but believe it or not, it doesn’t end there. There is so much ground to cover concerning  story titles that we’re dedicating a follow-up article to explaining the rest. Stay tuned for Part 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title.

Until then…

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Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

The Shadow of the Torturer, a science fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer is a science fantasy novel written by Gene Wolfe. A favorite among fantasy fans for decades and the first in the series The Book of the New Sun, it is usually forgotten in lieu of its later descendants…and for good reason.

Shadow’s only saving grace is its highly literary writing style which is polished and masterfully executed. However, that is the only good thing to be said about this book. This reviewer can’t help but wondMinimalist Review of science fantasy novel Shadow of the Torturer book by Gene Wolfeer how many people were blinded into thinking this book belongs on the shelf of greatness due to its excellent writing style and not for its merits of storytelling, of which mastery is entirely absent. In fact, the technical elements of the story are so poorly handled that it feels written by a first time amateur who doesn’t know what he is doing.

The Shadow of the Torturer starts with the idea that an insular guild of torturers produce sheltered individuals who do poorly when dealing with reality and the outside world. But that’s as far as the story goes with it. From there, the plot devolves into a masturbatory wandering through a directionless plot that has little to do with the story’s setup. Its gimmicky ending cuts the story off mid-action without ever deciding what the story is going to be about or without any type of conclusion. The only connective tissue between the first and second parts of the story is a long-winded setup for the explosive mess that follows it.

Exposition is delivered in an unskilled, forced manner. World-building lore and history rarely pertains to the plot or the events at hand. At one point the main character asks his companion if she would like to hear a story and she turns him down, so he TELLS IT ANYWAY. OUT LOUD. TO HIMSELF.

The world in which the story is set is simple, inorganic and incomplete to the point that it is difficult to get a grasp on its sociological elements. Its neatly containered societies are too neat and easy, the cultures being completely non-present in day-to-day life. The author introduces new concepts seemingly to just introduce them. Rarely do these concepts become relevant to the story and even more rarely do their setups have any payoffs.

Although several thematic elements establish themselves early—presumably for a thoughtful exploration later on— no such examination ever takes place. Even the title, The Shadow of the Torturer, promises a wealth of thematic material as a central spine but fails to deliver in any form.

What passes for characters in Shadow are more akin to two-dimensional sheets of gray paper than actual living, breathing beings. Their complete lack of depth or imagination can be seen in the way they react like vague clichés of characters borrowed from the 1940s pulp era. And while several characters are presented with interesting setups, none of their story arcs ever deliver a meaningful payoff.

The main character is the only exception to the rule. His inner emotional life is visceral and effective, and certain details of his person add interesting dimensions to his character, such as his perfect memory. But ultimately even these facets of his character serve no purpose in advancing or enriching the story.

The protagonist lacks a strong motivation or drive to seek his goal. He spends most of his time falling into the company of characters unrelated to the main through-line and letting them direct him from one pointless task to another, consuming nearly two-thirds of the book in nonsense shenanigans and depriving the reader of a more substantial experience. Finally, most (if not all) of the inter-character relationships play out to like juvenile wish fulfillment subplots of the protagonist, and not relationships of believability or value.

Granted, The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in a cycle of four, all of which were written and completed before Shadow was published, so many of the issues that arise in the first book are likely (read: hopefully) addressed in others. In fact, the vast majority of the fanatical acclaim associated Shadow groups it with other books from the series and not as a standalone. However, being part of an award-winning series does not excuse the story from lacking the basic ability to stand on its own.

The Shadow of the Torturer has received much praise over the years. It is sad to think that such a poorly-crafted novel has been so lauded, as if the genres of fantasy, science fantasy and speculative fiction were so sorely lacking for quality content that Shadow stands above the rest as a mark of excellence. It is also interesting to note that while the book is worshiped as sacred and sacrosanct, seldom do adherents actually say WHAT is so good about it, probably because evidence is remarkably scant.

An interesting read for the curious mind and perhaps of significant importance to those willing to read the entire series, but for this reader the experience was nothing less than infuriating.

Rating: 2 / 5

10 Great Books to Read Before You Die

1. 1632 by Eric Flint

(sci-fi, alternate history)

book cover for alt history fiction novel 1632 by Eric Flint a book to read before you dieA small West Virginia town is transported from the year 2000 to the year 1632 in central Germany during the midst of the Thirty Years’ War due to an alien technology called the Assiti Shards.

You’ve probably never heard of 1632, Eric Flint or the Thirty Years’ War, have you? Let’s start by pointing out that the Thirty Years’ War was among the deadliest in human history and almost no one has ever written fiction or fantasy about them. As to Eric Flint…he wrote a book called 1632, a novel with a concept that sounds so horribly bad there is no way it can be any good. But it is. And not just good, but great. Flint tackles his premise with elegant execution that ensnares the reader in a strange and unique world and makes us love him for it. Available on Amazon.com.

Read my Minimalist Review of 1632!

2. 1984 by George Orwell

book cover for classic fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell a book to read before you die

(sci-fi, literary)

Set in a dystopian socialist future, a low level bureaucrat goes in search of a rebel organization that promotes free thought, only to find himself ensnared in a devious government plot.

Orwell’s masterpiece is one long illustration of why communism is evil and in so doing creates one of the greatest and most haunting futuristic worlds in all of literature. 1984 is one of the few books with an overt message that isn’t beaten over your head every five minutes. If you walk away from this book with a new-found fear of rats eating your face off, we will understand. Available on Amazon.com.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker

book cover for classic horror novel Dracula by Bram Stoker a book to read before you die(horror, literary)

A young engaged couple is haunted by nocturnal visits of a reclusive vampire named Dracula. With the help of Prof. Van Helsing they follow the vampire across Europe in an effort put a stop to his long trail of gruesome murders.

This classic vampire tale is widely regarded as one of the best horror novels ever written. Bram Stoker uses implication and psychological terror to spur the reader’s imagination and heighten emotions. Everything Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer wrote derives from this source. Except for Nosferatu, no one has ever been able to make a decent screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s best novel. Available on Amazon.com.

4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

book cover for sci-fi fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card a book to read before you die(sci-fi)

A young boy goes to battle school in preparation for war against a hive-minded insectoid alien race but soon discovers that he alone is central to winning it.

Just as Dracula is one of horror’s best, Ender’s Game is one of sci-fi’s greatest. Originally a novelette, Orson Scott Card later expanded the story into a full-blown novel. With one of the biggest and most emotionally devastating twists in all of readingdom, Card knocks this one out of the park with a story like no other. It’s kind of like a vanilla Full Metal Jacket in space, but without as much Vincent D’Onofrio. Ender’s Game (2013) has also been recently adapted into a feature film starring Harrison Ford. Available on Amazon.com.

5. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

book cover for horror thriller novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson a book to read before you die

(horror, thriller)

A lone survivor barricades himself in his home while the dead come back to life and cover the earth.

This is where it all began. Before Anne Rice and George A. Romero there was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend which introduced both zombies and vampires into the same story of post-apocalyptic survival and paranoia all the way back in 1954. In spite of being an absolutely incredible story, much was lost in its adaptation from page to the silver screen, including the most thought-provoking ending in all of undead literature. Our condolences to Richard Matheson‘s family; he passed on June 23, 2013. Available on Amazon.com.

6. Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

book cover for literary fiction novel Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan a book to read before you die

(literary)

A group of American tourists disappear in the political uncertain country of Burma (Myanmar).

Combine a group of tourists who find themselves lost in the backwoods of a third world country with a character-centric story by novelist Amy Tan and what do you get? A perfectly constructed novel called Saving Fish from Drowning. You may recognize Amy Tan from her famed Joy Luck Club, but sadly Saving Fish doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Available on Amazon.com.

7. Sphere by Michael Crichton

book cover for science fiction novel Sphere by Michael Crichton a book to read before you die

(sci-fi, thriller)

A psychologist is sent to a military science base on the bottom of the ocean floor where a mysterious airplane has crashed.

While Sphere is easily author Michael Crichton’s best novel, the movie adaptation does the book little justice. And trust me, the plot sounds cheesier than the actual execution. Using an introspective protagonist to analyze a mysterious brain-wrenching plot, Crichton navigates the reader through certainty, doubt and speculation and into an immersive science fiction experience. Available on Amazon.com.

8. The Giver by Lois Lowry

book cover for young adult science fiction novel The Giver by Lois Lowry a book to read before you die

(YA, sci-fi)

In a seemingly utopian society, a 12-year old boy enters training to become the new “Receiver of Memory” and comes to realize that their utopian society has eliminated all individuality and emotion.

Even though The Giver is intended for middle schoolers it is worth the quick read. Sporting a beautiful story with a universal message, Lois Lowry‘s Newbery Medal winner expounds the values of art, individuality and deep emotion better than most adult novels. Available on Amazon.com.

9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

book cover for classic literary novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper a book to read before you die

(literary)

Two young children in the American south experience racism first-hand as their father, a lawyer, attempts to defend an African American in a small town court.

There’s a reason To Kill a Mockingbird appears on every high school lit class syllabus. It’s beautiful. It’s terrible. And it is still one of the most effective works of fiction about racism and inequality ever written. For an added bonus, read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were close friends as children and the pair appears in both novels in two different but fascinating interpretations. Mockingbird and Other Voices are both available on Amazon.com.

10. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

book cover for revisionist oz fiction Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire a book to read before you die

(fantasy, literary)

A revisionist version of L. Frank Baum’s original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which follows Elphaba as she faces a series of misfortunes that ultimately turn her into the Wicked Witch of the West.

It’s a shame this book has been nearly forgotten in the shadow of its sequels and the hit Broadway musical of the same name. Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked is truly a work of art in the form of a literary novel which thoroughly examines the nature of good and evil through a lengthy, in-depth discussion of surprising gravity. Available on Amazon.com.

Read my Minimalist Review of Wicked!

5 books that didn’t make the list (but you should read anyway):

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (fantasy): A fully-realized fantasy world starring a large cast in a character-centric fantasy epic.  Available on Amazon.com.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (sci-fi, thriller): If there is ever a way to revitalize your childhood love for dinosaurs, this is the book is the way to do it.  Available on Amazon.com.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (mystery): A dark mystery novel featuring one of the most interesting characters to hit the written page. Adapted into several films, including [list here].  Available on Amazon.com.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (sci-fi, thriller) One of the most intense books you will ever read.  Available on Amazon.com.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (literary, war): A haunting, surreal account of chaos in war.  Available on Amazon.com.

Starship Troopers, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein

A nearly forgotten military sci-fi classic by author Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers pushes science fiction beyond the commonplace genre novel toward the realm of literary fiction and its penchant for universal truth. By setting the story in a futuristic fictional setting, the author disassociates the book with any specific real-world war, allowing him to focus on a thorough examination of theme and moral philosophy.

Part science fiction novel, part moral essay, Starship Troopers devotes considerable time to philosophizing about the role of the soldier, the military, and the obligations of individuals in a collective society, especially to their fellow man. Drawing from the author’s own experience in the Armed Forces, Heinlein uses his well thought-out universe to constructively criticize the faults of American society through the eyes of a militaristic fascist one.

front book cover for science fiction novel Starship Troopers written by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein

The novel’s thematic backbone creates a solid skeleton through which to elegantly explore the psychology of the soldier, specifically the infantryman, as he graduates through the various phases of his career from pre-enlisted civilian through mature officer. Heinlein also explores adjacent branches of this theme tree, including the developing relationship between master and student, commander and enlisted man, and father and son. With each new step toward maturity the protagonist sees the military machine with greater discernment and understanding (the military organization being a thematic substitute for ‘the world’ because in this case the military is the protagonist’s world).

Despite being published in 1959, Starship Troopers provides the experience of reading a novel written 10 or 20 years later than its actual publication date. Unfortunately, the dated dialogue continually bursts this illusion, ever reminding us that the novel was written in the 1950s. An over-use of unnecessary dialogue hedges such as “Uh” and “Umm” at the beginning of character responses slows the pace of many scenes and takes the reader out of the world of the story.

Readers expecting heart pumping action and thrilling space battles will be sorely disappointed in Starship Troopers. Heinlein deliberately steers clear of these tropes by means of the anti-“war genre” (e.g., anti-genre) to maintain focus on his themes and the insightful exposure of a combat soldier’s psychological journey. Despite the agedness of the book, many of his philosophical ideas remain universally valid to this day.

Starship Troopers was adapted for the big screen in 1997 by writer Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven.

Rating: 4.5 / 5