Humans see in a hierarchical way
Which is to say that we take in information in a particular order. In terms of sight, the hierarchy is Movement»Outline»Detail. Our attention, like most sighted animals, is attracted to motion. Something moving toward us at speed is likely to be a threat or at least a danger. This is why predators often ‘stalk’ their prey, moving slowly to avoid detection.
Then we see the outline
This allows us to quickly estimate or even ascertain whether something is hostile; prey; vulnerable; damaged; sick and many other conditions that may factor into a decision to attack, retreat or hide – “Hey doesn’t that large thing look like the outline of a running bear? We should run.” This is why effective camouflage can simply break up the outline of an object, be it a tiger or a tank, rather than having to be a facsimile of the surroundings.
Finally we see details
“Ah yes, now I can see the saliva glistening off the jagged teeth lining its gaping maw. We should run faster, if possible.”
So? So what?
So far so, ‘that’s a different way to look at creating descriptions, but your protagonist there is a little matter-of-fact,’ but what has this got to do with titles?If I’m book shopping, the hierarchy goes: Outline»Cover»Title»Synopsis»Social Proof.
Because books don’t move, (unless they’re on a rotating display stand, and even then it’s the stand that’s moving,) we can skip immediately to the Outline of the object stage.
From the outline of an object
we infer a lot that consciously we don’t think about, but that informs our choices. If I go into a bookshop looking for a breezy holiday read, I’m unlikely to look at large, hard-backed tomes, partly because the tale of the journalist who sacrifices his career to become a lens grinder in Omsk doesn’t sound altogether breezy, but mainly because you can already tell from its outline that it would take up more space in your luggage and be heavier and more unwieldy than a paperback.
We look to the cover
for a variety of information: Possible genre; depictions of characters – whose attire may impart probable locations or historical settings; or else symbolism of some sort to give us a broad stroke of the book’s content.
We take in the cover before the title because although there is detail in the cover, pictorial representations don’t require the sort of cognitive load that written language does, as the latter requires recognition and decryption and so is saved for later in the process, because if we have time to take in more details, we must be safe.
All of which is by way of saying
I read a book title today that made me want to buy it immediately. It was: “The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times” by Xan Brooks, (not an affiliate link, but to help promote Salt Publishing’s very worthy #justonebook campaign,) and after reading the synopsis, I did so – in part because Xan used the title as the first hook.
How do you hook readers in with a title?
It occurred to me that my interest was piqued by the title because it implied a question: Why? Why do the clocks in that house all tell different times? What possible reason could there be? That line of thought impelled me into reading the synopsis, where I found a premise I liked the sound of, then read “Praise for this book” and reviews included on the book’s information page that provided rather strong social proof of the book’s quality and likely levels of entertainment, and so satisfied, I made my purchase.
The best titles evoke questions
If your title already has me curious, you’ve won half the battle. You have my attention. All you have to do now is land the synopsis with an intriguing premise and if it’s not too far into the month and I’ve not already bought a ton of books, and if the price is right and the website UX is good and the checkout process is easy and has my favourite payment options and if I have time … I’ll probably buy the book. So maybe halfway was a stretch given the number of factors involved in purchasing decisions, but you know what I definitely won’t buy? Hundreds of other books that didn’t catch my attention.
What sorts of questions can I use?
Any really. I’ve not done any research into what sort of questions convert the best. If anyone has more info, I’d love to hear from you and with your consent, will add it to this post to spread the info love.
I have a feeling though that the most attractive titles may involve one simple question used as a hook, but that can spur other, more complicated and detail-oriented questions.
Yes, that’s certainly one of them. Just kidding. The major questions are, of course: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. (‘Which?’ Has a special place in the heart of this writer, (and I suspect many others,) alongside bad reviews and the question, “So, what’s your book about?”) If your title makes me ask one of these, in isolation, you will get my attention. My first question when reading the title “The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times” was: Why? Just that. One word. (Read back three paragraphs if you don’t believe me!) If your title’s implied question can be distilled down to just one of those words, the question is at it’s most succinct, which means it is processed quickly, which in turn means we raise it’s priority because we can decide if it is worthy of our attention quickly and time is a huge factor in decision making. We have evolved with short initial attention spans, in order to scan our environment and note possible prey or predators nearby. Anything that could be one or the other of those things we give further attention to. Anything that takes too long we dismiss unless we feel safe. We still operate at this level unconsciously, which you may have heard of referred to as our ‘Reptilian Brain’ – the primitive part of us that handles things like our fight or flight responses.
Most of the bookshops I’ve ever been in feel like very safe spaces for me, so anything that makes me curious, I will then spend more time asking questions and probing for answers, such as: “Why do the clocks in that house all tell different times?” Which is a reframing of the initial question looking for more detail, as per the hierarchical process, or: “What possible reason could there be for that?” Which again, is probing for details.
My favourite book titles often adhere to this principle:
- Fight Club – What? What is that?
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – What? What’s That? What galaxy? Where?
- To Kill A Mockingbird – What? Is What? What happens?
- The Name Of The Wind – What is it? Why is it important?
- The Lord of the Rings – Who? What rings? Why?
- Something Wicked This Way Comes – What? Why is it coming? What makes it wicked?
Some other titles may evoke more of a general, “Huh?” type of reaction initially, before questions are formed, (which is really just a more vague version of “What?”) but this is also acceptable as it means it caused a reaction, gained the reader’s interest and evoked further questions, e.g. Dune – Huh? What Dune? What’s that?
My current work in progress is titled “The City Of Tears“, which I feel evokes “Why?” as its core question, plus “What city?”, “Where?”, “Who’s crying?” and “What’s causing people to cry?”
Test your title
Think about your current book’s title. Does it imply a question? If so, what is it? Can it be distilled to one of the basic questions? Does it evoke further questions? Let me know in the comments.