Friday, November 15, 2013

Story Game: Titles and Title Words

Just to review what we're doing with these Friday Story Game postings: We're creating a game for brainstorming a pretty detailed story idea and plot.  It's actually a set of little games or exercises which can be used together or separately.  The first step is to create the game itself to suit the kind of story you want to tell.

We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example.  You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.

Last week we talked about the Villain and the Crime that drives the story -- which finishes up our Character Structure.  Now we're going to talk about a couple of things that will tie the various ideas together -- in particular, the Title.

What's In A Name?

A title can just be a tag we put on a story to identify it.  And sometimes we don't name a story until last -- after it's written and we've discovered what the story is like.  And that's fine.  As far as this Story Game is concerned, we're coming up with a working title, or even just title words, to help with the idea generation, but the final title will probably change.

All the same: In my opinion, title is the single most important element of a story.

It's more important than the cover.  More important than the first line.

Actually, the title IS the first line.

It's the very first text anyone sees of the story. And it may be the first or only thing they will see of the story.  Think about it: when people talk about the book to their friends, they don't draw a picture of the cover.  On a blog or a forum, most of the time they'll only mention title and author.  Only when they are writing more formally do they go to the trouble to post a cover.

People say the cover is the thing that gets people to look at the blurb, but very often the title is the thing that gets them to look at the cover.

And even when you see the cover of a book, the most prominent thing (especially at thumbnail size) is usually... the title.

Titles Can Sell a Story

Sometimes a spectacular title will sell the book all by itself.  I often like to say that my thriller play, Slayer of Clocks, played to sold out audiences at the Discovering New Mysteries drama festival... but I'll be honest, the reason they were sold out had nothing to do with how good it was.

When they reserved their tickets, the attendees knew nothing about my play except the title.  It had the same cast as all the other radio dramas at the festival, so it wasn't like there was a star attracting them.  And my name meant nothing at all to them.  There was no preview, no word-of-mouth.  No cover or poster.  Just a title.

But it was a cool title. Slayer of Clocks.

This title refers to the way the antagonist sarcastically signs his name. (People think he's crazy ever since his boss found him crouched in his driveway, in a dirty bathrobe, whaling away at a clock with a hammer.  It was just therapy, but he will never live it down, so he plays to it.)

In this case, the title didn't come before the story: I came up with Milo Banks and his time-killing activities before I came up with the title.  (You could say he came up with the title for me.)  If I'd come up with the title first, I doubt if it would have lead to Milo -- but I think it would have lead to an interesting story. 

A cool title raises my interest as a writer the same way it raises the interest of the reader -- and so starting with a title is a way to make sure we pay off on that anticipation.

Another reason I think titles are so important for selling a story: I've noticed a pattern in the successful writers who particularly adhere to the adage "the best promotion or one book is another book" tend to be good at titles.  In particular I'm talking about those who don't stick to one genre and don't market or promote -- they just write and write and write.  These authors tend to be good at titles.

And I've noticed that those who make a living at short fiction (aside from erotica writers) tend to be those who write magnificent titles.

This makes complete sense: Glance down a page of tweets or a list of books or any page of text, and you'll find that an interesting, provocative or evocative title will grab your attention.  It doesn't just work for blog posts. It works for books too.

So learning to create a great title is a really important skill.  If you don't play any other part of this game, playing games with titles will be useful to you.  Make it a hobby.  Make it a passion.  Get good at it.

Playing the Title Game

There are lots of games and exercises you can do with titles, but here are three common ones:

1.) Half-Titles: Dean Wesley Smith -- one of those people who does well by just writing stories -- often generates his stories from titles. He has lists of "half-titles" he's gleaned from pulp magazines and he puts two halves together to make a new whole.  Then writes a story to suit the title.

2.) Chapter Titles: on a similar note, I like to collect the Table of Contents of old books from Project Gutenberg.  These titles were written as teasers to keep people reading their way through the story, but they can also make provocative titles for a full story.  Sometimes they're weird or old-fashioned, sometimes ordinary but still evocative:  "Beggars Under the Bush" "Uncle Dick's Plan" "Picq Plays the Hero" "A Whisper From Afar" "A Strange Teasure" "The Warning"

Someday I want to take one of these old books, and write a flash or microfiction story to suit each title in the table of contents -- and publish them as a collection.

3.) Random Words:  Some people will use a dictionary or a book or some online "word generator" to come up with a couple of random words.  This often works better as a writing prompt  than as a title generator.  I mean, if the words are truly random, they are often boring.

But the concept is good, and since this Friday Story Game is about random choices, I have come up with an enhanced version of this random words game to use with The Situation Worksheet.

And it's a method I recommend you use for your real writing and titles.  But it takes a little work:

Your Personal Word Collection

Start collecting evocative words.  I look anywhere for them, but the best place to start is with lists of your favorite books.  And if you want to write commercial fiction in a particular genre, start with the best seller lists for that genre.

But go further than that.  You want your title to stand out.  You want your title to evoke something curious.  So collect some from other sources -- titles of other genres, old books, poems, non-fiction.  I've even collected them from my Twitter feed. (I just scanned through what was currently on my screen and grabbed up any words or phrases that sounded interesting.)

Collect these words and phrases, and keep them in a numbered list.  I keep them in a spread sheet so I can sort them alphabetically -- and thereby spot any duplicates.  (I have over a thousand.)  The row numbers work just fine for numbering the list, so I can use a random number generator to pick them at random.

Also, one more thing to do while you're collecting the words: Pay attention to patterns.  Are one-word titles in vogue with your genre right now?  Names, phrases, adjectives, verbs, nouns.  Pay attention to what sounds like a title in your genre.

Creating A Title For the Game

As I said above, the title I generate in the game isn't necessarily the title I'll end up with.  However, I think it's worth putting in a  little extra effort here -- if only to practice coming up with great titles.

For this game, randomly select ten words from your word list. Of these ten, you'll find that some of them are boring or don't match up in any interesting way with some of the things you rolled for the characters. But you should be able to choose a couple of words that evoke the right feeling.

Choose three (even if there aren't three good prospects -- pick the three best).  You can mess around with them. Change the tense and such. ("Fly" can by "Flying" or "Flyer" for instance -- but try to come up with something good for the original form of the word.)

Sit down and brainstorm as many variations as you can think of with the words individually or together.  Say your words were "fly," "dark" and "flame."

You'd start writing down: Flying though Darkness; Dark Flyer; Flame Flyer; Flight of Fire; Dark Flames; Fly to the Light; Fly in the Flames; etc.

You might even find yourself going a bit afield of the words -- that's okay.  Just keep pushing it.  Come up with a page of ideas.  If everything seems boring or doesn't evoke the feel you want, pull in one of the other words of the ten you rolled.

And if you just don't come up with anything that works, don't sweat it.  Just put in the three original words in the slot for "title" and move on to the brainstorming phase.  You can change the title, or you might find that the words help you form a story which has a more obvious title.

Sometimes I'll play a Title Generation Game outside of this bigger story game. If I do that, I'll only pick 1-3 words, and I have to stick with them.  And I'll see how far I can push it.  Come up with a crazy number of titles. Then when I'm done, I'll keep the best ones, and throw the rest away.

Next Week - Theme and Subject

These are the last items for the Situation Worksheet.  Then we'll take a break for Thanksgiving Weekend, but during December I'll talk about putting it all together -- maybe talk about the story "In Flight" that I'm writing from the game -- and maybe have a look at the Character structure of some Audrey Hepburn movies (Wait Until Dark and Charade).

Then in January, we'll talk about actual plotting games.

See you in the funny papers.

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Tanja said...

Thank you so much for sharing these ideas! I always like to try new things and I will definately start to collect cool words. Such a simple but yet brilliant idea.

I've really enjoyed the story game posts and I'm eagerly awaiting the next update :D

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is interesting to me on a number of levels. For one...because I've had so little control over titles until recently (the copy editing department generates them, my editor and I approve them...or not). For another, the titles I *have* done have really just been an effort to brand the series together as is the case so frequently with cozies (thinking about Katherine Hall Page with her The Body in the___" series.)

I like the idea of finding title first, then writing story. :) Might not do that for my Myrtles at this point, but in future series, that would be a great change for me.

The Daring Novelist said...

Tanja: glad you're enjoying the series. And collecting titles and words is a great hobby for writers.

Elizabeth: I think that publishers prefer to have their people do the titles just because they are so important to sales.

And yeah, writing for a series is a particular problem in titles. They do really have to reflect the series. I'll sit around and do lists of titles for possible Mick and Casey books all the time -- because they're fun.

Sometimes I'll come up with a great title for a Mick and Casey, and then write the story. Sometimes the story comes first. (When that happens, the title is not as cool, but it will do.)

I also come up with titles for the Man Who books, but those at least leave me a little more leeway on the story. The titles usually just refer to George's obsessive compulsive behavior, so they have more to do with the subplot than the plot.

I did think I ought to do a Thanksgiving story for Starling Marquette, though -- The Man Who Ate Too Much. I haven't got a plot for it though!

jnfr said...

Very helpful as always. Thank you, Camille.

The Daring Novelist said...

Glad it's useful, Jnfr!