The other night an editing client and I traded a bunch of text messages over what to title his next fantasy novel. Since a fan of Robert Jordan was sitting by me in the room, I asked him to rattle off some of the fourteen titles in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—but off the top of his head, he couldn’t remember a one.
Before Jordan’s numerous fans go all rabid on me, I want to acknowledge the substantial storytelling skills of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney, Jr.), that The Wheel of Time is an awesome name for a good long series, and that I’d be more than happy to achieve this author’s sales numbers. While this post will at times compare dragons to teacups—a title should suggest genre, after all—this exercise is simply intended to explore what it is that makes a title memorable.
Which of the following paired titles do you find more memorable?
New Spring by Robert Jordan
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Jordan’s pairing is so commonplace he has me wondering what an "old spring" would be. Carson’s title, however, is provocative to the point of shocking—which I think was her (very memorable) point.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
The World According to Garp by John Irving
God, Needle, Storm, Dragon, Beholder—Amazon.com has a nice long list of “Eye of the” titles. By giving his protagonist an unusual name, and using it in his title, Irving evoked a distinctive world his readers are unlikely to forget.
The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes, it’s a good thing the publisher changes the title: Fitzgerald’s original title was Trimalchio in West Egg. The improved title is now iconic, and almost synonymous with The Great American Novel.
The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
“Reborn” is overused in titles, since most stories center around some sort of death/rebirth scenario to motivate change in their characters; "dragons" are a staple in fantasy lore. But in pairing “dragon” and “tattoo”—and replacing the less fanciful Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women—Larsson's winning combination stands out among a burgeoning sea of “The Girl Who” titles.
The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris
A lot of bland titles sport the word “shadow,” few of which can compete with the iconic radio show title, The Shadow. “Rising” is also a common word for titles, and the pairing here does nothing to elevate the whole. But by going against what we believe to be true—in a world with light, everyone has a shadow—Harris’s title raises a question that makes it easy to recall.
The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
"Fire" and "heaven" create an unusual enough pairing, but put the fire in an interesting container, add a beloved character name, and voila: unforgettable.
Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
All I have to say is, ew. After all these years, Golding’s memorable title still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
Crown of Swords is one of Jordan’s better titles to my way of thinking, because the visual pairing of words suggests a war story, but by evoking a very specific tale, White’s pairing of "sword" with a "stone" is much more memorable.
The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan
Virgin of the Seven Daggers by Vernon Lee
Oh yeah. A virgin and a number make all the difference.
Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
One could be a generic romance. The other is just a tad more chilling.
Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Sometimes simpler is better. Bolder.
Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
Confessions of a Knife by Richard Selzer
Although used in a nonfiction title, Selzer’s anthropomorphism grabs at your imagination, whereas Jordan’s title—to be fair, a favorite of the Jordan fan referenced in the first paragraph—inspires in me a shrug.
*The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan
Storms in Teacups by Christine Murray
For me, The Gathering Storm is the sole province of Winston Churchill’s nonfiction account of World War II. It is true that titles are not covered by copyright and therefore reusable—but I find Murray’s out-of-the-box pairing more memorable, albeit in a totally different genre.
*Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan
A Night in Terror Tower by R.L. Stine
Midnight towers, dark towers, black towers—Stine’s alliterative title towers over them all.
*A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan
The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
The title of the forthcoming and final installment in the Wheel of Time series is wistful, yet again, with time, its commonplace word combination will be difficult to recall. (It’s like trying to distinguish Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True from his The Hour I First Believed. Or the Jack Nicholson movies As Good as it Gets and Something’s Gotta Give, which to this day I get mixed up, although I’d never confuse either of those titles with, say, The Shining.) Running, however, is something very specific, immediately making the reader wonder: why had running been forgotten?
(*Asterisks indicate works completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death.)
In some ways it makes no difference what title my client chooses. As with Fitzgerald, his publisher has the final say. But the more intriguing your choice, the better the chance the publisher won’t override it with something that disappoints you—and of course if you are self-publishing, only you can come up with the title that will grab a reader’s attention (for purchasing) and stay in his memory (for recommending).
Your turn: What fantasy titles have you found memorable? Why? What about titles in other genres?
Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."