I know a few fellow authors who possess the magical ability to come up with a fun book title, then somehow manage to write an entire novel around it.
I envy them. If you’re like me, coming up with the “right” title for a project is an agonizing process. My last novel went through seven name changes before publication, and as of this moment I’m still considering changing it.
There’s a lot of pressure on us writers when it comes to titling our work. After all, readers will judge your book by its cover—especially by what’s written on it. Whether they’re browsing bookstore shelves or scrolling through Amazon’s literary listings, most potential book-buyers make a snap judgement about a particular volume based on two things: the title, and the price.
But it’s not enough to merely give your book a name that will sell. Tighter Buns in 30 Days might fly off the shelves, but your readers will be angry if the book turns out to be a hardboiled detective story with no crunches or side-bends in sight.
You need a unique title that fits your novel like Spandex… something both evocative and provocative, something that encapsulates the feel of your story but stays concrete as well, something that says everything about your book but gives nothing away.
6 Steps to Choosing a Rockstar-Quality Title
Does that all sound complicated?
It doesn’t have to be.
While choosing the right name for your book won’t ever be an exact science, our proven 6-step guide will direct you through the brainstorming process while looking to well-known novels of the past for inspiration.
Let’s hit the books!
1. Look to Your Writing
This is perhaps the easiest advice to follow out of all six steps, because all it requires is intimate knowledge of the manuscript—which, as the author, you have in spades. Many great book titles have been ripped straight from the books they describe.
Read through your book again: Is there a line of dialogue that seems particularly poignant? Is there a singular descriptor that stands out as provocative? What about an action line that turns heads?
When choosing a title that accurately represents your book, remember that nothing evokes your writing quite like your writing.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most famous example of this trick, but other authors have made excellent use of it as well. In the context of its story, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is a joking reference to murdered muckraker Sid Hudgen’s sin-sational writing style, but as a title it manages to evoke both the web of murder and secrets that bind the book together. Charles Baxter used the title of an oft-mentioned fictional painting as the title of his book of romantic vignettes, The Feast of Love. And Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! references several prominent characters in its title, while also deliberately invoking the fantasy tropes the story so lovingly mocks.
A good rule to follow: when carving a title from the bones of your manuscript, choose something you can give new meaning to or put a unique spin on. Simply referencing something from your book won’t cut it.
2. Look to Your Themes
This might take some introspection on your part: What is your book actually about?
Choosing a title that references your plot or characters is always effective, but evoking the themes of your novel can be difficult—and yet especially powerful.
As you read through your manuscript, ask yourself the following questions: What do I feel when I read this? What larger ideas are at play in the text? What allusions are made—and what do they say about your writing?
Of course, you might have written your novel with certain themes and ideas in mind—and that just makes this prompt easier for you.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises alludes to a bible verse to paint a cosmic-scale portrait of despair. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto ties the novel’s motif of opera to its themes of optimism and finding beauty in hopeless scenarios. And when writing his novel about how media saturation drowns out the human experience, Don DeLillo aptly chose the title White Noise.
Remember: not only can an evocative title be poetic, it can also make your novel seem larger and grander simply by invoking big ideas and grand themes.
A Fun Fact: Patchett’s original title for Bel Canto was How to Fall in Love with Opera, but the name was changed in the editing process for fear the book would be mis-shelved as an instructional book. Trust your editors, friends!
3. Be Clear and Concise
Imagine that it’s a few months after your book’s release. You’re at a gathering of some kind—an office function, a holiday party, a wedding reception—and people are talking about the books they read that year.
Can you imagine your title in that conversation? Is it mumbly, or easy to pronounce? Is it unique, or does it get mixed up with another book’s title? Is it short enough to say in a single breath, or does it require abbreviation?
I like to call this the “Have-You-Read Test.” Your title should be short, distinct, and easy to recommend at a party. A title that flows. You might think Dracula in Westchester is a good title for your character study of a devious English solicitor (and it might be!) but it’s simply too difficult to say.
For better results, look to recent bestsellers for inspiration: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the most talked-about book of late 2012 and uses memorable double-G alliteration. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is short, punchy, and made distinct by the natural phonetic pause between “the” and “help,” plus its percussive P-ending. And Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, while not a particularly short title, is effortless to pronounce thanks to how the beginnings and endings of its component words blend seamlessly together.
Shortcut: before you finalize your novel’s title, say it out loud five times fast. If it’s a tongue-twister, you should probably consider making a change.
4. Consider Your Motivations: Character vs. Plot
Consider the following:
- A fictional character we’ve been following for hundreds of pages finally admits that his 20-year marriage is a failure.
- A new clue is discovered that could lead to the identity of a notorious killer, but only 24 hours remain before the case is closed for good.
Which of these examples would carry more weight in your story? This exercise will help you determine whether your novel is character-driven or plot-driven. Think about the motivations of your characters: do they act because of internal or external conflict?
Knowing the difference will not only help you develop as a writer, but also assist you in picking titles, as there are naming conventions for each.
For the most part, character-driven books have character-related names, and plot-driven books have action-related names.
A lot of character-driven books are named after the protagonist, like Jane Austen’s Emma, or after a group of characters, like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Or you could give your novel a title that describes a particular character without naming him, like Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist.
Plot-driven books, in contrast, have titles centered on action and intrigue. This can manifest as an imperative, like Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone, or Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit?
Many plot-driven titles center on a sought-after item, or MacGuffin: Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig are prime examples. Or your title could allude to an important event in the book, like David Wong’s John Dies at the End or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
This is more of a guideline than a rule, however: plenty of authors have written bestsellers that bucked this tradition. Stephen King, for example, has spent much of his career writing plot-centered novels named after certain characters. Carrie, Christine, Cujo, The Gunslinger, IT…
But even if you, too, throw custom to the wind, considering the main motivator in your novel can lead you to a better title.
5. Consider Your Audience – the Genre Question
Would you read a Civil War-era historical romance novel called High Noon Showdown?
That may be an extreme example, but audience expectations should play a prominent role in selecting the title of your novel.
Over time, popular genres like fantasy, crime, and science fiction have developed certain naming conventions As a result, readers have come to expect that certain titles will precede certain kinds of stories.
The Big Sleep is a fine name for a hardboiled detective story because of its urban jargon and implied violence. The Lord of the Rings works as a fantasy title because it evokes royalty and treasure, as well as a little mystery. And I, Robot immediately introduces the science of its fiction by playing on our fascination with sentient technology.
Study the names of books similar to your own. What are common words and phrases they use? What differentiates them from books in other genres? What might your favorite Western be called if it were written as a sword-and-sandal fantasy?
Imagine your surprise if you cracked open Lust on the Windswept Peak to find CIA agents tracking the movements of a terror cell. You’d think the author deliberately misled you—and it’s this sentiment you want to avoid when naming your own stories.
Readers like to know at least a little bit of what they’re getting when they pick up a book—give them the cues they need to know that your book will scratch their current reading itch.
6. Ask a Question That Demands an Answer
The titles of books are good for more than just telling them apart. Otherwise, we’d give them numbers instead of names.
Your title’s most important job is to sell your novel to the world. You can come up with the most poetic and poignant name that’s ever been written for a book—but if nobody reads what’s inside, your book might as well have been called Book.
Think of your title as your novel’s attorney. When a reader picks up your book in the bookstore, the title makes the first big argument in your favor. Other factors present evidence as well—the cover illustration, the flap copy, the back cover, online reviews, etc.—but it’s the name on the front that talks first and loudest. And so, to make that first argument count, your job is simple:
Write a title that compels readers to find out more.
What big question does your novel’s name ask of the reader? What sucks them in? What promises does the title make, and how might these promises be fulfilled?
Often these are fairly simple questions—Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber merely asks “Who are the princes? And why are there nine of them?”—but the title infuses the ideas with enough intrigue to pique readers’ curiosity.
Hunter S. Thompson’s acid-soaked Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas asks “What’s so horrible in Las Vegas?” And Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic demands we read on to discover just what color magic actually is.
Consider each of these 6 factors when you choose the title for your next novel. In fact, consider dreaming up a few different versions and testing them out on your friends, family members, or social media followers… or folks you bump into in the elevator.
Get their thoughts on each title. Specifically, ask what they think a book with that name might be about, and whether they’d be curious enough to pick it up and read it.
Basically, you’re doing split testing with your title. What you think is a whiz-bang title for your book might confuse others who aren’t familiar with the story—but a title you invented based on Step 3 might be a resounding hit with your target audience
Just think: there’s someone out there right this second looking for a new favorite book. That book could be yours—but only if they read it.
So no matter what else your title accomplishes, make sure it’s an arm-twister.
For more information on choosing titles for your books, look no further than:
- How to Choose a Bestselling Book Title for Fiction or Nonfiction
- How to Write Book Titles that Sell: 5 SEO for Creating a Nonfiction Book Title so You Can Sell More Copies
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