A good title for a book is like a nugget of gold buried under a mountain of dirt. Writers want the perfect name, something that grabs the reader’s attention, sings when it’s spoken, and relates to the novel in some way. Digging for that perfect name, however, can be more frustrating than writing the book itself.
If you’ve struggled with titling your stories, you’re not alone. It happened to me with the fantasy novel I finished last month. And last month, when I Tweeted a question about book title troubles, fellow writers on the Twitterverse shared their past and current frustrations. Heather D. said, “Only once have I ever come up with a title I loved and was wed to. All my others have ‘working titles.'” Jody Moore wrote, “[T]his WIP has been in the works for years (3rd rewrite) but I only settled on the title a few months ago.” Other responses were similar, where writers called titles everything from “a real pain” to “something I don’t sweat.”
It’s true that we can’t worry too much about titles, especially if your novel winds up being traditionally published. (Standard practice is that your publisher’s marketing team gets the final say on titles.) However, there are ways of making the “title-digging” process less distressing and more fruitful. In this “mid-noveling break” edition of Chronicling The Craft, we’ll look at strategies for mining for possible book titles, from examples of different sources for titles to questions we should ask ourselves. At the end, I’ll bring a personal example – by revealing the title of my fantasy novel, and how I (finally) arrived at it. 🙂
Why Is a Title Important?
Let’s clarify one thing before we go too far: Why is a book’s title so important? Why place so much emphasis on one small part of a novel? Even if you already know the answer, it’s worth revisiting. And that answer is…
Long before the cover art comes along, the title is the face of your story. It can help your query letter stand out from the slush pile and compel agents and editors to read your work. It can also entice future readers, including book bloggers who may want to review or promote your book once it’s published. In other words, a good title is crucial to your novel’s success. If it doesn’t do any of the above, then you might want to rethink it.
Perhaps that’s why writers agonize over “The One Title” so much. We know what it needs to accomplish, and searching for it can add more pressure to our writing process. However, landing on one (or more) strong possibility can renew your excitement for your novel. There are other positives as well to “the one,” as I’ve already mentioned. But for now, let’s focus on getting you one step – or maybe several steps – closer to finding a fantastic title for your story.
This article breaks up the “title-digging” process into two parts: possible sources for your book’s title, and questions to ask about your potential titles.
Possible Sources for Your Book’s Title
It always helps to know where to look for possible title ideas. Of course, your novel is and should be the place to find those golden nuggets, but think of all the different areas within your novel that could hold them. Your characters, the setting, an event from the external conflict – and that’s just for starters.
Below is a list of possible sources on “title” inspiration within your story, along with titles from published novels for examples. As you review this list, think about your WIP and any potential titles you can draw from each source. Some might not feel right; others might have that special spark you’re looking for.
Characters: Reflecting on your book’s characters is a great way to mine for potential titles. The idea can be as explicit as the character’s name, or just ambiguous enough to tease the reader’s interest. Character-influenced titles have been popular choices for a long time, and authors have used a few variants on this “scheme,” as shown here:
- The protagonist’s name (Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)
- A nickname or alias referring to the protagonist (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran)
- A nickname or alias referring to a pivotal character other than the protagonist or narrator (Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho)
- More than one character or a significant group of characters from the novel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Setting: Using the name of an important location from your novel can offer hints about the novel’s genre, time period, and/or tone. What do each of the following titles make you think of when you read them?
- The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
Events: Sometimes there’s no better hint to a novel’s plot and themes than using the name of an event from the external conflict. Do these event- or plot-influenced titles catch your attention? If so, how?
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Significant Objects: Naming a book after an item (or more than one item) that’s central to the overall plot can accomplish many of the same objectives as the other strategies. And like with character names, the object(s) can be clearly called out or woven in as suggestions of what to expect:
- Clearly stated objects (The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman)
- Objects of implied or cryptic importance (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder)
Quotes, Adages, and Metaphors: This can be a tricky method, since it requires selecting a single phrase from the novel’s text – or creating a brand new one – that ties in metaphor with the novel’s characters, themes, and/or plot. The examples below, grouped by source type, accomplish that feat:
- Quotes or sayings taken from the text (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin)
- Metaphors or phrases inspired by the novel’s plot, themes, or motifs, but aren’t directly stated in the text (All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes)
A Combination of Two Possible Sources: Some book titles take two different “sources” and combine them into something truly memorable and relevant to the story. Be careful with this method, though. Using two sources can result in a lengthy title – and while there’s nothing wrong with a long book title, you want to ensure it’s a good one.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (and all the other Harry Potter titles) by J.K. Rowling
Questions to Ask About Your Potential Titles
Once you’ve collected a fair number of title ideas, step back and consider which gem is the best fit for your book. If it helps, prepare a checklist of questions to ask yourself about your possible titles. Here’s one to get you started:
- Does the title intrigue the reader? Is it catchy, poetic, humorous, etc.? How do other people react to the title when you share it? Do they tell you they’d be intrigued to read it if they picked it up off the shelf?
- Is your title unique? Research it on Google, Goodreads, and other similar sites. Even though book titles aren’t copyrighted, your novel has a better chance of standing out in its respective market – and in search engine rankings – if you choose a title that hasn’t been used before.
- Is your title memorable? If it’s like a great melody from a song and sticks in your brain – or, even better, in other people’s brains – long after you choose it, there’s a good chance it’s a keeper.
- Does the title fit your book’s genre? Do the words evoke images or an ambiance that’s appropriate for your intended audience?
- Does the title hint at the book’s external conflict or main character arc(s)? Make sure it doesn’t reveal too much about the ending or any critical plot points. A title should be a teaser, not a spoiler. 😉
- Does the title accurately reflect what your book’s about? In other words, does it still make sense as a title by the time you finish reading the book? A character’s or setting’s name might not work if the story isn’t focused enough on that particular character or setting.
- Does the title match your book’s POV and/or voice? Consider avoiding first-person pronouns if your novel is told from a third-person point of view. Otherwise, you risk being inconsistent – and possibly misleading your readers.
- Does the title have a “double meaning”? Does it capture the story’s essence or symbolize any of the themes without being too obvious?
Don’t worry if a potential title doesn’t answer “yes” to all of the questions above. These are only meant to get the gears turning more smoothly in your brain. However, if a particular idea does tick off several “boxes” on this checklist, consider it a sign that you’ve found a title glittering with promise.
Still looking for more tips on finding a great book title, especially for your nonfiction book? Then check out this post at the Self-Publishing School.
My WIP’s Title, and How I Thought of It
I can’t tell how much of a headache it was to think of a title for my fantasy novel. Despite having the main plot outlined, knowing my characters (especially my protagonist) inside and out, and falling in love with certain details that either were there all along or popped up as I wrote the first draft, I had no idea what to call it. Nothing felt or sounded right for a long time. And so I kept referring to it as “the fantasy novel,” “the WIP,” or “Eva’s story.”
That changed 8 days before I finished the novel’s first draft (at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, of course *lol*). Since then, I’ve shared the title with a few people offline, just to get used to calling the story by its name and to hear how it sounds as it rolls off the tongue. Thanks to their enthusiasm and feedback, and to a growing confidence that this title truly feels “right,” I’m now ready to tell you the title of my book:
THE KEEPER’S CURSE
It’s a reference to a Significant Object from the book’s external plot. There’s a double meaning behind The Keeper’s Curse, too: It symbolizes one of the novel’s central themes and an important part of the protagonist’s character arc. Of course, I can’t tell you more than than for now. 😉
Out of curiosity, let’s run The Keeper’s Curse through the checklist:
- Does the title intrigue the reader? What do you think? Does the title make you want to read the book?
- Is your title unique? Not really. I found one book titled The Keeper’s Curse on Amazon and Goodreads. It appears to be a paranormal / urban fantasy (mine is a YA epic / high fantasy). But it’s only one book, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
- Is your title memorable? Might have to wait a little while before I can truly answer this question.
- Does the title fit your book’s genre? Yes! It screams “fantasy” loud and clear. The word “curse” also implies that magic will be involved in the story – which it certainly is!
- Does the title hint at the book’s external conflict or main character arc(s)? Yes, based on what I know about the novel.
- Does the title accurately reflect what your book’s about? Yes. Even though the protagonist is both the narrator and the character most affected by the story’s events, I wasn’t interested in naming the novel after her. I wanted something that was more genre-indicative and hinted at an external plot that’s bigger than the character herself, if you know what I mean. The Keeper’s Curse achieves both of those goals.
- Does the title match your book’s POV and/or voice? Hard to say, since the title refers to the actual name of something from the book. However, since the title implies that there’s magic, and the protagonist is one of the magic-wielding characters, maybe the answer here would be “yes”…?
- Does the title have a “double meaning”? Ohhhhh yes!
So, based on the answers here, I’d say that The Keeper’s Curse is a keeper – for now. 😉
If you’re a writer, how have you come up with titles for your work in the past? Do you have other book-titling conventions to add to the lists above? If you’re a reader, what are some of your favorite or most memorable book titles? What do you think makes a strong title? Finally, what do you think of The Keeper’s Curse? Does it make you want to read the story one day? Feel free to share your answers and other comments below!