Clio Em is a writer and musician
Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, it’s hard to miss that every post your friends have shared is begging for a reaction. Online headlines have become more dramatic and imperative as they prompt gut reactions from readers. This may seem to be somewhat morally questionable (although it has become our effective social media reality). Headlines are inventive and readily available rhetorical devices, and there is at least one realm where that seems completely admissible. This is the world of creative writing.
Yet the fine art of literary seduction works best with a dash of subtlety. There is the difference between emotional manipulation and writing for an emotional response. How can we, as creators of fiction, construct emotionally appealing headlines that draw a reader in yet do not crawl into the emotionally exploitative world of clickbait, instead expressing greater concepts? An author, when appealing to a reader’s curiosity, is better off doing so intelligently and with respect than attempting to redirect instincts in a manipulative way. In order to avoid clickbait tendencies, we must first understand them.
Clickbait has been analyzed numerous times from psychological and emotional standpoints. “The promise that ‘you won’t believe what comes next’ or ‘you’ll never feel the same’ deprives readers of their analytic agency and imposes an uncontextualized reaction on them,” writes Jazmine Hughes in her opinion piece for the New York Times. Bryan Gardiner delves into the psychology behind clickbait in his aptly titled article for Wired, “You’ll be outraged at how easy it was to get you to click on this headline.” He explores how curiosity and emotion play into compelling you to click on a certain link: “Emotional arousal, or the degree of physical response you have to an emotion, is a key ingredient in clicking behaviors.”
Headlines that incite visceral reactions are the new standard. They exploit our curiosity, but critics have given little thought to the impulse behind clickbait’s creation. The construction of a headline is a very specialized creative writing task, and one that is usually given to a headline writer instead of the author.
True click-baiting happens in articles where the content alone might not be enough to stimulate interest. Take a textbook example of the style popularized by many pop culture sites, including Buzzfeed: “Man Watches Helplessly As Wolf Approaches His Dog—What Happened Next Was Unbelievable.” By contrast, Noam Chomsky’s recent think piece on hiring practices at universities bears the title “The Death of the American University.” The former is an adorable dog-meets-nature story; the latter is a much less adorable faculty-and-students-meet-hardship story.
Why would someone click on the story about the wolf and the dog? Without overtly mentioning it, the headline hints at environmental destruction and animal welfare, creating emotionally salient points and prompting action from the reader. The inherent drama of the title “The Death of the American University” may prompt a click, but it does not overtly direct you to wonder what happens next. Chomsky’s message clearly discusses immediate concerns that affect the lives of those working in academia. Yet to a fast-scrolling online audience of so-called “digital natives,” the dog story may seem more appealing thanks to its more manipulative title.
More and more stories now have two headlines: one for a landing page or social media shares, and one as the actual headline. Slate structures their entire online publication this way; even the sub-headlines differ. (Editor’s Note: The Town Crier also uses meta titles and descriptions, which appear on social media.)
Consider this cover story on science and tech by Will Oremus. On the landing page, you see a troublingly worded and terse headline that sounds more sci-fi than sci-fact: “Dictating the Future: Voice-operated assistants are about to take over how we interact with the internet. Can we trust them?” In the article link proper, the headline reads, “Terrifyingly Convenient.” Additionally, when you scroll down through the article, a third headline emerges. “Alexa, Cortana, and Siri Aren’t Novelties Anymore. They’re Our Terrifyingly Convenient Future,” proclaims all-caps text at the top of the page. Yet Oremus himself writes in a much more balanced fashion than the style of headline would suggest: “the problem is that conversational interfaces don’t lend themselves to the sort of open flow of information we’ve become accustomed to in the Google era,” he states, providing a balanced analysis of potential problems rather than an alarmist take on tech.
Now, if you are a social media fan and would like to convince a friend of the dangers of technology, what better way than to back yourself up with a roaring headline that states your case for you in far more emotionally engaging terms than any of your own Facebook posts ever could? Perhaps your friends and acquaintances will not read the article. Maybe they will merely skim it. Yet the impression they will get is one of alarmism and fear, rather than a balanced and critical examination of emerging technological trends.
Many creative writers, indeed, feel that eliciting an emotional response through their words is an inherent part of writing.
Click-baiting headlines are part of the creative art of persuasion. Many creative writers, indeed, feel that eliciting an emotional response through their words is an inherent part of writing. We likewise wish to craft titles that will incite a reader’s interest. Yet it is not necessary to apply emotional appeal in the same way headline writers would.
With the psychological influence of clickbait shaping our daily narratives, it is easy to take a shortcut to seduce readers into picking up your book or delving into your story. While it is perfectly possible to construct a marketable title that is also artistically valid, artistic integrity needs to take precedence. An effective title will have emotional appeal but will not manipulate. It will encourage traffic through the awakening of a natural curiosity, instead of driving it by alarming our underlying inquisitiveness.
More and more Internet headlines elicit curiosity
Analyzing evocative titles for works of fiction gives us some insight into how they function. Ray Bradbury’s classic tale “There Will Come Soft Rains,” for example, is a reference to the Sara Teasdale poem of the same name quoted in the work, and offers a prediction of the future. The unusually lyrical phrasing of the title provokes curiosity just as to what these “rains” might be. Post-apocalyptic in tone and content, both Bradbury’s story and Teasdale’s poem eventually reveal what the prediction might really imply.
Ann Leckie titled the books of her thought-provoking debut trilogy as follows: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Mercy, and Ancillary Sword. In the universe Leckie constructs, Justices, Mercies, and Swords are classes of spaceships. In their literal meanings, however, these words, coupled with “ancillary,” create uneasy dissonances, where words that carry powerful meanings and suggest leaderships are coupled with a word indicating support. However, these titles very aptly convey aspects of Leckie’s narrative, as the main character, a very literal ancillary, takes on the role of a leader in unexpected ways.
Successful titles can be applied to entire publications, as well. VICE’s Terraform is a platform for showcasing work by emerging science fiction writers. In speculative fiction as well as science, terraforming is defined as the process of converting other planets into Earth-like environments, usually for the purpose of human colonization. In the context of Terraform, it is the home of new speculative fiction stories on the net. The title is a reference to a standby in science fiction, yet also describes the site’s purpose of nurturing worldbuilding by emerging talents.
So should creative writers really delve into clickbait? Yes, they should, insofar as they should understand the mechanisms behind it, and they should learn to wield these mechanisms with caution. They can bring the reader into a scene, impart an atmosphere, or hint at the ambiguity of their stories rather than simply tricking a procrastinating mind into clicking on a link.
Clio Em writes speculative fiction and crafts experimental folktronica, often uniting text and music in extended narratives. She also founded and directs Fleurs rejetées, a concert series reviving the concept of the Salon des refusés through the performance of rejected 21st century compositions. She writes at clio-em.com.