Monday, 2 February 2015

Must They Die? A Look at Titles by Theodore Moracht

While reviewing Peter Pan Must Die I thought the title was cool. Little did I know that it was not very original after stumbling across another novel called Snow White Must Die. At first I assumed it was by the same author and part of a series so I googled it and was bombarded by a plethora of "Must Die..." titles. I've included some of the more interesting below, but make no mistake, there are plenty more, so many that I'd say we could state that this has become a rather cliched way for an author to title an impending masterpiece - not that this is the only cliched titling mishap. There are other cliched ways of titling a story that perhaps I will look at in the future.

In general,  I find that titling is an often overlooked art form that needs to be practiced and taught for the simple reason that titles participate in the hook of a story. If an author uses a title that is similar to other books there is the risk of people assuming that this book is like the others. If the others were not very good, readers can start associating based solely on the title. However, whether similar or not the key is that a title must stand out to be good. Choice of words and phrasing play a vital role in attracting a reader's attention to the the book, which is usually stuffed into a bookshelf in a bookstore, spin facing outward or a link on a web page. In either case, the cover is useless.

Having a title with "Must Die..." in it has an obvious advantage, and I think that when a fictional character is added, it raises even more questions, curiosity and interest. Personally, I think that Peter Pan Must Die is more effective than Snow White Must Die for the simple fact that Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up and one presumes will never die. It's safe to assume that Snow White will die someday, despite the "happily ever after" platitude, probably clinging to the arms of her prince in a needy condensed panic.

Using a fictional fairy tale character also welcomes a  certain mood attached by the history of the tale and character. The myth and legend that's been built up in every brain from a childhood of reading these fairy tale classics, makes the titling all the more ominous in a magical and fantastical way. Yet, there is every reason to believe (without needing to read the blurb), simply by realizing where in the bookstore this is shelved that these titles have nothing to do with Peter Pan and Snow White, at least not those traditional characters we all grew up with and loved. Instead, one can assume that these titles are referring to codenames, drugs or (gasp) perhaps a metaphor?

Less effective is using a fictional character that one sort of logically expects to die some day, due to the risks and dangers that they are always facing. The next book I came across, Spock Must Die! was used as a title to shock Trekkies and move them to emote, freak out and rush to the stores to grab this to alleviate their fears of the senseless death of an iconic character. And just to be on the safe side, the exclamation mark puts an exclamation point on death in this book. But before hyperventilating, stop and think about it for a second. When would there ever be a situation in which Spock must die, despite the constant attacks from Klingons and Romulans and other time-space anomalies? Spock will never die; there is no market in it, so right away before reading anything, the reader knows that Spock will not die, so no, he mustn't. Yet the hook is tantalizing even though the cover, unfortunately, gives something of the "Must die..." premise away.

A Jew Must Die is a slight variation on the "Must Die..." title. The title indicates no specific person who must die, real or imagined, just a Jew, and one assumes from the grammatical article 'a' it really isn't important which one. I think a title like this has one purpose in mind: to titillate. That is to say: It is doing its job. The words Jew and Die in the same title will evoke emotions in most people and get them associating with well-dressed, blond-haired, blue-eyed evil guys. This title would have no trouble standing out, be it on a crowded bookshelf, a slew of links or even in an editors slushpile and a person would have to be in a trance not to notice this book in a bookstore. Title, earns its pay in this one.

The next title has the same intention as A Jew Must Die, but with an obviously lesser effect. The king? It does give something of the premise or plot away, or it could be a red herring. With a title like The King Must Die, it would be a big disappointment if this was not about assassinating an important character, and preferably one that the reader can sympathize with.

I don't know which came first but The Queen Must Die beside The King Must Die makes me think this is a mystical series linked by nothing but the magic of names.

The next title I found, The Face that Must Die, is an interesting take on this style of titling. In this title it is not essential that a character dies, just the face. How does that happen? Is this about the joys of plastic surgery? This is the kind of title that I like, one that seemingly doesn't make much sense at first glance, thereby forcing the reader to wonder, which is what the reader needs to do to get hooked and start reaching for the money. The byline hook doesn't hurt either.

Hello Kitty Must Die falls into a similar category. Is this a phrase, as in Hello, Kitty Must Die or is Hello Kitty a name? I personally don't care so much and won't be rushing out to the bookstore to find out any time soon. If the character's name is Kitty this title takes "Must Die..." title formula and tries to make it a little more interesting than the others by giving the person who must die an unusual name. Gidget Must Die does the same thing. But other than the name Gidget, the title offers little else except death. Oh wait, that's a good thing, sorry forgot.

So, I think we get the point. In all of these stories, we are made to think that someone must/will die. This is supposed to raise a question. Why must this person die? What did they do? Who will kill them and how? Is it a promise of violence in the novel or is it merely the inference of suspense and action, as the whoever must die disagrees with the title and does everything possible to make it: No, I must Not Die!

With some many titles like this, it starts to look like authors aren't being very creative when it comes to titling. For myself, I suppose what I learned from all this is that I am not as well read as I'd once thought.

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