Does a title tell the story? More often than not, the answer is No. In actuality, it’s the story that tells the title. Or perhaps even better said, the story brings the title to life. Not long ago, someone mentioned to my wife, “You should know what a book is about from reading the title.” He thought of himself as a helpful critic, yet he didn’t take the time to consider that the titles Moby Dick or Animal Farm didn’t exactly give away the storyline on their front cover.
We have all heard, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but you never hear, “You can’t judge a book by its title.” The simple truth is, the title is the cover of most books. While there may be some artwork, the title is what everyone gravitates to once they get past the colors and pictures. Whether you’ve noticed it or not, the title is often a meaningless word until you read at least a bit more. If there’s a brightly colored book that catches your eye and you pick it up and the title says Cats! Cats! Cats!, you would probably put it back down if cats were not your thing. But what if the title was Clarence, Tanja and Sly? What would you do then?
There are plenty of titles that bring no vision to one’s mind until you at least read the synopsis. If two brand new published books came out today and one was called, “The Rise and Fall of Seattle,” and the second was called, “The Catcher in the Rye,” we would have no idea what the second book was about by simply reading the title. Then again, without the good fortune of already having knowledge of the following classics, we would have no idea what Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Hamlet, Don Quixote, or Catch-22 were about. To get even the most vague idea of the story behind a title, we would have to read the back cover to put a face or a place or a time period or a subject to the title. The synopsis or summary or back cover or whatever you want to call it, is where books are sold.
If you believe the titles above are too dated to be relevant, writers should be encouraged when looking at some successful 2018 books that left us clueless after reading only the title. Freshwater, Crudo, There There, Red Clocks, Asymmetry, and The Mars Room. Without reading them or hearing about them or seeing some PR about them, you would have no idea what any of those stories were about without reading at least the back cover.
More often as not, the title is an empty word with a story behind it. The story gives the title meaning, not the other way around. Close your eyes and imagine what the novel “Carrie” is about if you didn’t already know it was a Stephen King classic. A thousand stories could come to mind, none of them matching his. The key to a title are these two things. Is it catchy enough to convince someone to read the back cover? Is it relevant to the story? Don’t worry if the title does not tell the story. That’s not it’s job.