'Killer Titles'

Titles shouldn’t be underestimated. They are not a bolt on, once a writer has completed a story or merely a heading for the sake of having one. A successful narrative is a team effort: every word must do its part and some more than others. The words in a title carry more of that burden because they are the acid test for the piece of fiction. They are the first words chosen by the writer that are seen by a prospective editor or agent or by a potential reader, scanning book spines along a shelf. Writers are judged on their titles in a microsecond. Second chances are rare. Titles need to give the reader an excuse for taking an interest. More of an interest, hopefully, than the excuse offered by the previous title on the pile or the shelf. Titles are the ambassadors of a narrative and if they make a poor impression or no impression at all, then those two or three words can cost a writer thousands.

Successful titles can achieve their aims in a number of ways. The first way in which they can do this is by arousing interest in the reader. The following titles spookily use the same word but essentially achieve the same thing. 15 Hours by Mitchel Scanlon and Execution Hour by Gordon Rennie both establish immediate interest with just two words. They simultaneously suggest a time limit and force the reader to ask a question – which automatically involves them. What happens in 15 Hours or on the Execution Hour?

As well as arouse interest, titles can also promise the reader a good time. The nature of this good time depends upon the genre in which the fiction is set, for example, in the Warhammer universes, action and violence tend to play a major role in a potential reader’s enjoyment of the text. The ‘War’ in ‘Warhammer’ tends to give this away and is an example of a successful title in its own right. Titles like Storm of Iron by Graham McNeill and Death or Glory by Sandy Mitchell accomplish this admirably. The titles say ‘lots of action to be had here’, without being too on the nose.

What a title really needs to do is create more than interest and engagement, however.Titles need to excite. Firstly, a title should excite the writer. It might give them a buzz of expectation and be part of the inspiration either for writing the story or showing it to others. Significant ‘others’ that they will need to excite with the title are potential editors, agents and reviewers: people for whom the title will be a deciding factor in them wanting to spend more time on the narrative. The short story collection Let the Galaxy Burn and Ben Counter’s The Bleeding Chalice both have titles that get me excited about the contents of the narratives. It is sometimes difficult to quantify what is and what isn’t an exciting title. If a writer can’t wait to share their title with others, as well as the story the title heralds, then the chances are the writer is excited about and has created an exciting title.

One gauntlet that all writers have to run is the possibility that their titles will be changed later on in the process. Movers and shakers in the collaborative part of the writing / publishing process will want to do this for a myriad of reasons. Should this be a reason not to strive for the above in a title? No. A writer cannot get to that point without exciting their editor, for example, with a killer title and so therefore even a title that isn’t used still has a role to play and a requirement to excite and be exciting.

The successful Horus Heresy Series is blessed with a myriad of exciting titles. Take the following three: Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow and Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon. All three derive their excitement from giving the suggestion of being ‘in media res’ or in the middle of events. All three also contain verbs that lend them a sense of immediate action and plot movement. Nick Kyme's Back from the Dead achieves the same effect.

Other titles are successful in different ways. Some titles are particularly evocative or make it easy for the reader to picture a strange or unusual situation. Dead Sky, Black Sun by Graham McNeill achieves this. Some titles achieve a resonance or have a memorable nature that sticks with the reader after reading them. Ravenor and Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett are undeniably cool sounding names: they are unusual and contain interesting phonetic patterns that roll of the tongue in such a way as they are suggestive of gravitas or impending conflict. Faith and Fire by James Swallow also uses the sound qualities of the words – the alliteration created through repeated consonant sounds – that make the title easy to say and recall. Alliteration lends a title an almost poetic quality. Metaphors also make memorable titles, forcing the reader to become engaged in the process of combining two ideas to create a fresh and unusual third idea. Dan Abnett does this with the title The Armour of Contempt.

Can titles be successful without following these rules? The answer to this is yes. Space Marine by Ian Watson is about as on the nose as you can get and Nathan Long’s Zombieslayer sets up the straightforward expectation that the novel’s heroes will indeed slay zombies. This does not stop these titles from heralding successful books and in many cases, readers can come to expect them as part of the marketing angle – for example, the Slayer books. Despite this, many stories fall by the wayside, however, because their creators fail to give their titles the thought they need and deserve. Readers cast their eyes along bookstore shelves, skipping innumerable spines before having their interest piqued by a single title that makes them reach for the book (and then hopefully take it to the sales counter and ultimately read it). Feel sorry for the writers of those neglected texts, gathering dust on lonely shelves – but not too sorry. They fell at the first hurdle and failed to give their stories ‘Killer Titles'.

Rob S.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Rob!

Just my usual method of checking you are who you say you are on the Bolthole... if you are, great - gizzacomment.

If you're not... Hi anyway!



Hi Pyroriffic,

An excellent idea. We don't want any Alpha Legion style impostering. "I'm Alpharius!"

For good measure, I have posted a Link to your excellent site on the blog.