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Sound and Rhythm

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

It's time now to dust off a word you may not have encountered since high school English class: alliteration. It refers to repeated letters or consonant sounds in a phrase. We've already looked at several book titles with alliteration, including Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption. Notice how the repeated k's in "Kisses from Katie" and the repeated yet slightly separated r's in "Relentless Love and Redemption" add pizzazz. Other examples previously mentioned include Pride and Prejudice and The Magic Mountain.

This technique adds appeal to a title even when the subject is rather serious, as with Suicide of a Superpower by Patrick Buchanan. For a children's book, alliteration can help make your title humorous and downright irresistible. For example, there's a popular young adult series called Dear Dumb Diary.

Another auditory technique for titles we've also already seen is word repetition, which I suppose is visual as well as auditory since the repetition has an impact on your eye in addition to your ear. Usually, it creates a pleasing balance in a title, such as in Your Money, Your Self.

When it comes to rhyming in a title, however, you should avoid it unless you're happy with the humorous lilt that it adds. For instance, Valerie Malmont has a mystery series where several of the titles rhyme, including Death, Lies and Apple Pies and Death, Snow and Mistletoe. From these titles, you expect a light, comedic writing style and not a story that's dark and portentous. Rhyme is used quite often and to excellent effect in children's book titles, as in Raindrop, Plop! – a title that masterfully evokes the playfulness many kids experience with rain puddles – and Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! – a title that conveys the fun of music.

Then we get to rhythm, which is the pattern of emphasized and deemphasized syllables in a title. Make sure you say each of your possible book titles out loud, including the subtitle. A topnotch title rolls off the tongue. At best, it scans well, like a line of poetry: DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM, or DUM de de DUM de de DUM. If it doesn't scan well, it may be hard to remember correctly.

I was browsing around for a good example of this, and in the list of history books, I found The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. This sparked my interest because I always thought it was called simply The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which rhythmically is far superior. Some publishers have indeed shortened the title to the version that scans much better, and you should tinker the same way with your titles.

One of my own books has a title with no rhythm whatsoever: Writing Articles About the World Around You. One of the reviews on Amazon rightly calls the title (not the contents) "lackluster." Oh well. I can't remember whether that title was my idea or the publisher's.

One of the best ways to create an extremely strong, punchy title is to place one-syllable words right after one another. The only way to say such a title is slowly and rather forcefully. Listen: Thick Face, Black Heart. You almost feel the impact rather than hear it: BOOH BOOH BOOH BOOH. Best of all, that effect perfectly fits this particular book, which applies ancient Chinese warrior wisdom to today's ultracompetitive business world. Another example is Dirt-Cheap Green Thumb. That sounds extremely confident.

Finally, there are words and phrases that simply sound funny and make you want to laugh. In fiction, Going After Cacciato is a serious novel about the Vietnam War – indeed, it won the National Book Award in 1979. Imagine if it had been called Going After McGillicuddy. That shifts the tone to comedy, which wouldn't have been right for the book. How about Pigeon Passion? To me, that sounds humorous, and I believe that's unintentional. The subtitle is The Complete Pigeon and Racing Pigeon Guide, which seems pretty serious in intent. In Knuffle Bunny, a children's book, the title is fun to say, and that's completely appropriate. Well done!

Whether or not you've taken advantage of any of these auditory techniques, say your title out loud and listen carefully, because it may be hard to say clearly, or it may sound like something else. I once had a phone conversation in which the person I was talking to heard the title of my book 6 Steps to Free Publicity as "six debts" – "d-e-b-t-s," and as you can imagine, that led to a very confusing conversation. Since that time, I make a special effort to enunciate carefully when I say the title of that book.

An author named Ezra Barany says there were two reasons he had to reject the title Theodicy for his novel, which he felt perfectly described what he was up to. The dictionary says this word means "the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil." First, it was an obscure word that people wouldn't expect on a thriller, but more importantly, when you say it out loud, it sounds like The Odyssey, as in Homer's famous work.

Similarly, Jay Conrad Levinson told me he regretted giving his bestselling series of books the name Guerrilla Marketing because, over the phone, the first word sounded like "gorilla," the jungle animal, rather than "guerrilla," the type of warfare.

Next, we look at how well your title distinguishes your book from others.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin