Combing the Dragon's Hair

by Bonnie Swift


I heard a story once about a professor who had trouble getting enrollment in a course, which was titled something along the lines of, ‘Representations of the Mythopoetic in Prose and Poetry.’ So few students enrolled that the course was nearly canceled. The following year he taught the exact same course, but this time he titled it ‘Combing the Dragon’s Hair,’ and it filled up right away. There was even a waiting list.

Last week we focused on strategies for framing our stories and capturing our listener’s attention. This week we’re focusing on titles. You know the old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ It’s true, we shouldn’t judge people, courses, or stories by their titles. But we do, and so does everybody, because there’s something in human nature that gives tremendous weight to first impressions.


The secret ingredient to a good title might be as difficult to pin down as what’s behind Ira Glass’ incredible host intros (and there is some definite overlap here), but there are two important things it’s safe to say up front: the more playful the better, and descriptive is not necessarily best.


Radiolab has mastered the art of the alluring, allusive title. We’ve collected an instructive sample here (see below for links). Notice that each of these only hints at the subject its story, and that most are either riffs on familiar idioms or puns. Check it out:

  1. Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One
  2. Why are Bad Guys Bad?
  3. Leaving Your Lamarck
  4. In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt
  5. One Good Deed Deserves Another
  6. Rocked by Doubt

Now here are those very same stories, but I’ve given them less fun, more descriptive titles:

  1. Isaac Newton Unlocks the Mystery of the Rainbow
  2. Shakespeare on Cruelty in Human Nature
  3. The Effect of Good Maternal Care on Baby Rat DNA
  4. The Search for Truth in a Historic Photograph
  5. A Classic Thought Experiment on Strategies of Cooperation and Betrayal
  6. One Geologist’s Religious Doubt and the Toll it Took

A lot less appealing, eh? What is the principle at work in Radiolab’s enticing titles?

The first thing I notice is that many of Radiolab’s titles are twists on English idioms. While they do have a familiar ring to them, they aren’t just tired turns of phrase. Take ‘In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt,’ a riff on the Bible’s ‘valley of the shadow of death.’ This story is about a man who obsesses over mysteries until he solves them. It centers on the riddle of a photograph taken during the Crimean War, titled ‘Shadow of the Valley of Death’ (another variation of the familiar phrase!). Which is to say, there’s a lot going on here, overlapping references on multiple levels. So it sounds familiar (but not quite), and it is full of intimations (but not explicit).

Second, many of Radiolab’s titles are puns -- they are deliberately playful. Take ‘Rocked by Doubt,’ for example. This piece opens as producer Lulu Miller stumbles across a geologist in the desert; he gives her a lesson on ancient oceanic sediment deposits, then confides in her that he is struggling because he has recently come to doubt the existence of God. So there are rocks in this story, and a lot of doubt, and the main character is ‘rocked by doubt,’ i.e. shaken, or ‘wracked by doubt.’ But this simple pun is so much more fun than our descriptive ‘One Geologist’s Religious Doubt and the Toll it Took.’ Mine gives too much away.

Which is all to say that too much information in your title kills the promise of a story’s central revelation. And promises, as we learned from Glass, are a central tenet in listener recruiting technique. Of course, your title should have something to do with the discovery that you’ll uncover, but it doesn’t have to be a plot summary. It should capture the essence of your story, without revealing its twists and turns. And if it has a slightly familiar (but fresh) ring, and it’s fun (or funny), all the better!


Radiolab stories discussed in this post:

Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One
Why are Bad Guys Bad?
Leaving Your Lamarck
In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt
One Good Deed Deserves Another
Rocked by Doubt

Image via deviantart

Article written by: Bonnie Swift on 10/31/2013


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