Saturday, November 29, 2008

Title Theory and Dave's Daily Kick in the Pants

David Farland (Dave Wolverton) had some advice on titles in today's Kick in the Pants:

Step 1: Look for words that will put two disparate images in the reader's mind at once. If you look at the title of books that intrigue you, you will almost always find that they have either two words or groups of words that form separate images.

For example:
Chicken Soup -- For the Soul
Lord of the--Rings
The Da Vinci--Code
The Catcher--in the Rye
The Grapes--of Wrath

So you want to try to come up with two words that hopefully create disparate images. Yet it's not just disparate images that make the title intriguing. The images must almost beg the the reader to pick it up in order to answer the question, "What's this about?" Leonardo Da Vinci has a secret code? Are you kidding me? What kind of code? What's going on? Chicken Soup for the soul? I'll bet that feels good! I could use some about now.

Now, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a great example of what he's talking about. That title is created by juxtaposing two concepts. The rest aren't.

Sure, any four-or-more word title can be broken down into two or more groups. But claiming that that makes it a combination of two distinct concepts is a little post-hoc reasoning for my taste.

Perhaps I'd give him The DaVinci Code. However, that one is actually a Ludlum-format title - THE+NAME+ENIGMATIC-NOUN (The Bourne Identity, The Osterman Weekend, The Acquitaine Progression...). Dan Brown spiced it up slightly by selecting the name of a famous historical character, which adds emphasis to the name and makes it shoehorn into Dave's two-concepts concept.

Now, let's look at the rest.

The Catcher in the Rye. Actuating metaphor for the novel. Might possibly fit Dave's idea, although neither "catcher" nor "in the rye" have any standard meaning that I know of outside of baseball. The title becomes a cypher-- until the metaphor is literally explained in the text, it means nothing.

The Grapes of Wrath. Famous metaphor from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I don't think it qualifies as "two concepts" anymore.

Lord of the Rings. It might be possible to give him this one, since the reader will ask "what rings?" But does "Lord" really qualify as a separate concept? In fact, wouldn't the second phrase be meaningless without the noun, and the noun naked without the phrase?

I think his overall point, that a title needs to draw the reader's attention and make the reader curious about the novel, is good. To that degree, I'd generally avoid titles that have been used multiple times, although you know that anything with "Dragon" in it does sell.

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