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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!

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.

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.

As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner

Book cover for As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner, on Minimalist Reviews.By James Gilmore

As I Lay Dying examines the uncensored inner monologue of family members experiencing deep grief in what is more aptly titled a work of narrative poetry than literary fiction. Seemingly written in a single fever-pitch binge, Faulkner’s poignant discourse and extensive use of symbolism comes to the reader through the enigmatic filter of the inner mind.

As I Lay Dying warrants close study and an open mind. It is not for everyone.

Rating:  4 / 5

Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, a novel by Jules Verne

By James Gilmore

Among the great works of literature by Jules Verne are such classics as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island.  What you will not find nested among those works is a novel called Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon (La Jangada is the original title)—and for good reason.  One wouldn’t be so surprised at the quality (or lack thereof) of the novel had it been Jules Verne’s first attempt at the craft, but it mystifyingly appears at the very heart of his career alongside the greats.

Book cover for Eight Hundred Leages on the Amazon, a novel by Jules Verne, on Minimalist Reviews.

Despite pretense of adventure, 800 Leagues is for all intents and purposes a family melodrama with only trace amounts of “adventure.”  The novel is a dull read and hardly believable.  Sorely lack in conflict, the text is often insultingly redundant, the author reiterating known facts in such a fashion that the reader can’t help but feel like he is trying to fill space in a balloon filled with hot hair.  This effectively reduces the pacing of the novel to that of a dying snail.  The linear, predictable story submarines the uneventful plot with rare exception.  Any changes in the story occur entirely by means of deus ex machinae, which leaves the hands of the characters out of events almost entirely, save one or two instances, scuttling their raison d’être.

Overshadowing the weak dramatic impact of the book is the fact that it reads like a pedantic love letter to the Amazon River, like a wan excuse to wax poetic about this illustrious body of moving water.  Although informative, it reduces the novel’s literary value to a mere historical survey of Amazonian river tribes who would cease to exist a century later.

The characters in the novel tend to be shallow in depth and over dramatic.  The antagonist is the most interesting and compelling of the cast.  Unfortunately, his presence is minimal.

Despite some interesting tangents concerning facts about the Amazon River and a few florid descriptions, the novel is thin, flat, artificially contrived and obvious.

A caution to all who tread here: Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon is Jules Verne’s worst.  Despite a 5-star rating (from 2 reviews) on Amazon.com at the time of this writing, place this novel on your list of “books to avoid at all costs.”  Feel free to sample the free Kindle book (if you dare).

Rating: 1.5 / 5

Babbitt, a literary novel by Sinclair Lewis

by James Gilmore

Book cover for Babbit, a literary novel by Sinclair Lewis, on Minimalist Reviews.

Babbit by Sinclair Lewis is an all-but-forgotten literary masterpiece which espouses the hollowness of blind conformism.  At the surface, the novel appears to be about a successful businessman entering (and surviving) a mid-life crisis.  But more accurately, Babbitt is about a man whose identity only exists by means of his compromising conformity to everyone else.  He struggles between being the person everyone thinks he should be and what he really wants for his own life, although he has become so entrenched in the conformist society that he cannot escape.  In this he discovers that he is weak and pathetic, a living cliché, a human example of meaningless and futility.

Babbitt is a true character piece which explores every facet of the completely repressed individual in a society of demanding conformity.  The text remains engrossing despite constantly straddling the line between thoroughness and repetitiveness.  Unfortunately, reading the novel can be arduous due to its very slow story development.

Babbitt was internationally successful at the time it was published while domestically the novel’s brazen but accurate depictions and accusations of America offended or mystified many readers.  Every student of American literature should study Sinclair’s Babbitt.

Rating:  5 / 5

Other Voices, Other Rooms, a literary novel by Truman Capote

by James Gilmore

Other Voice, Other Rooms refers to shadows, memories—places people have been, voices that have sounded, ephemeral ghosts which burn brightly and then disappear, as if from a distant place and time. Once innocence is shed, you can never return to the past.

Book cover of Other Voices Other Rooms, a literary novel by Truman Capote, on Minimalist Reviews.

Rich, luxurious prose which reproduces in intimate the detail the cultural mores, mindset and isolation of the gothic rural American South. The main drive of the plot is the unraveling of the mystery of protagonist’s father’s identity, which ultimately leads to the loss of innocence and the realization that reality/life is a cruel and twisted master, of whom we only catch a sliver’s glimpse. Perhaps the most powerful strand of the story is the sub-theme regarding love and how it far more complex, and thus far more painful, than the youthful ideal of meet-love-marriage, as embodied by the character of Randolph.

Other Voices, Other Rooms should be considered a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Both are colorful, insightful penetrations into the gothic American South in which both Harper Lee and Truman Capote are depicted as childhood friends and protagonists.

Rating: 5 / 5