Chronicling The Craft: Digging for Ideas for Book Titles (+ Reveal of My WIP’s Title)

Digging For Ideas For Book Titles logo

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Does the title fit your book’s genre? Do the words evoke images or an ambiance that’s appropriate for your intended audience?
  5. 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. 😉
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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:

  1. Does the title intrigue the reader? What do you think? Does the title make you want to read the book?
  2. 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.
  3. Is your title memorable? Might have to wait a little while before I can truly answer this question.
  4. 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!
  5. Does the title hint at the book’s external conflict or main character arc(s)? Yes, based on what I know about the novel.
  6. 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.
  7. 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”…?
  8. 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!

35 thoughts on “Chronicling The Craft: Digging for Ideas for Book Titles (+ Reveal of My WIP’s Title)

  1. First of all, I love your title! It’s very intriguing, it makes me want to know who the keeper is and what the curse is. It definitely screams fantasy.

    Sometimes I find it really really hard to come up with a title and other times it just comes to me. For my current WIP(the one I’m focusing most of my time on) This World In Gray, I came up with it originally as a metaphor that the book’s protagonist uses to describe her life after her twin sister dies. It kind of just fit perfectly in my mind and I’ve loved it ever since. It also checks off about 6 things on your checklist!

    I love memorable, long-ish titles. Some of my favorites include Playlist For The Dead and I’ll Give You The Sun. Also, Golden Compass and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. And more simple titles like Eleanor & Park or Fangirl. Okay, now I’m kind of rambling.

    Great post, it’s so helpful! =)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alex! *does happy dance*

      Yeah, that checklist was just a random idea that came to mind. I researched a couple other “title suggestion” articles while I was working on mine. Some of the questions are ones I noticed a few times during that research; others were ones I thought were also helpful. Glad you found it useful!

      I like “This World In Gray.” It has a poetic feel to it. Is this the book with Rylie as the protagonist? If it is, it also matches what I’ve read about the story so far.

      “Playlist for the Dead”?! That’s a new one for me. What’s that one about?

      Like

  2. Interesting post. And there’s also the possibility of your title being or meaning different things in different countries, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK title), Northern Lights (UK title for ‘Golden Compass’), The Tributes of Panem (German title for The Hunger Games), and Broken Light (Dutch title for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter).

    I don’t bother too much about titles for my stories, but I do remember feeling a sense of satisfaction when I could start calling ‘Invisible Princess’ (working title) ‘Northspell’ instead!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. Final titles for published books will always come down to the publisher’s marketing department, and can differ from country to country. I think Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” was renamed “The Gathering Dark” in the UK, and Alison Goodman’s “Eon” was called “Eon: Dragoneye Reborn” and “The Two Pearls of Wisdom” in different parts of the world.

      Ooooh, I like “Northspell” for a title! There’s something mysterious and fantasy-ish about it. (Though I don’t know if it’s actually a fantasy story or not…?)

      Thanks for your comments, Becca! 🙂

      Like

      • Yes, it is fantasy. 😉 It probably fits into your ‘Quotes, Adages and Metaphors’ classification, as they have terms in the world such as ‘Northman’ and ‘Northwitch’, but I don’t think anyone ever refers to the curse in the story as being a ‘Northspell’, despite it being a specific sort of magic that comes from the Northern lands.

        You’re welcome!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The Keeper’s Curse … I like it. I’m saying it over and over in my head and out loud and it rolls off the tongue, it’s easy to remember and it’s also very straightforward. I say nice choice 🙂 I think you have a good list of what makes a good title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rachael! Yes, it’s very exciting and a huge relief. It felt really strange to keep referring to it as “the WIP” or “the novel” – sort of like repeatedly talking about your best friend as “she” or “the best friend” or “that person” without ever using her name. *lol* So I’m happy to walk away from that stage now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great title! 🙂 This is also a great post. Titles are weird, slippery things. Of my two finished novels (not counting my “drawer” novels, haha) both had different titles to start with, and my current WIP has already had one title change and the first draft isn’t even done yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alyssa! 😀 😀

      I agree on titles being slippery, almost like snakes or creatures you can’t quite get a grasp on. And from the sounds of it, your experiences with novel titles are proof of that. But at least it’s nice to know what to call it, even if it ends up changing over time.

      By the way, I think THE VIOLINIST OF VENICE is an awesome title! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes!!! I finally know what TKC stands for! 😀 Lol, I was so off the mark on guesses XD
    I love your title! The Keeper’s Curse…it sounds so grand and mysterious, full of fantasy and excitement; it makes me want to read it more! I can’t wait until you come up with a cover to go along with it!
    This is a wonderful article of advice. I can’t think of anything more to add to it; you’ve covered everything! Next time I go title searching, I’m stopping by here and going through this check list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I still think Tropical Killer Cake was an awesome guess. XD

      I’m glad you like the title, Elizabeth! I honestly had no idea how people would react to “The Keeper’s Curse” once I came up with it. All I knew was that it fit the book, and that I was thrilled and relieved to finally give the story a name. So it’s been really neat to read everyone’s responses and learn what kind of effect the title has on them. 😀

      Feel free to use the checklist! That’s what it’s there for. 🙂 Although I wonder if I should draft up an actual document that people can print out and use. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, yes, the best guess ever! 😀
        I know what you mean! I’m not sure how people will react to the title I choose, but I guess every author gets anxious about that 🙂 Hmm, I think this post would make a nice print out! Or, if you have a newsletter or mailing list you could offer it as a free giveaway to subscribers. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll keep the handout in mind then. The the only “mailing list” I have is the one where people are sent email notifications whenever something new posts here at the site. It’s a good idea, but considering I already have my hands in so many tasks, I’m afraid of adding more to my plate right now… So I might do some homework on how other writers have posted similar documents on their sites and go from there.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Yay, Sarah! I love your title. It is most definitely interesting and engaging. Even though I know little about your book, I want to read it now!

    And by the way, what a great article! My working title is The Astral Stone. It certainly signifies an important item in the book, but I’m afraid it does little else. It also reminds me of The Sorcerer’s Stone, and the last thing I want to do is draw comparisons to Harry Potter. My book is completely different and I don’t want to appear as though I’m trying to capitalize off of Harry Potter’s success.

    Which leaves me in a lurch about what to call my WIP. For now it shall remain The Astral Stone, but I’ll definitely be working through your tips to brainstorm something new. Stay amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kristen! *happy dance* This was a fun article to put together, though it took a while as well. But I’m really happy with how it came out.

      I don’t think The Astral Stone comes across as a HP “capitalizer” (sp?). Before you mentioned it, I didn’t think of the first Harry Potter book title at all. Besides that, it has a nice ethereal quality to it.

      But if it doesn’t feel “right” to you… My advice would be the same as what I wrote in response to TPG’s comment below. Don’t force a new title to come to you; let go, focus on the writing, and see what happens. Mine came to me at an epiphany moment when I was getting ready for bed one night (actually, 8 nights before I finished the first draft). But yes, story first, then the title. You’ll find “The One Title” eventually, I know it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I adore this title, myself: it’s intreguing, easy to remember (in other words, memorable), and sounds very fantasy-ish besides. Definitely something I’d want to read, this; keep it up! 🙂

    Still having issues with titles, myself. The original title for my WIP was “The Aurora Experiment” – a title which fits the WIP’s genre of science fiction (at least, I think so), seems to be unique and has several meanings within the book. The problem is that it gives next to no indication of what the book is actually about. I came up with an alternative title, but one of my beta-readers told me it sounded too much like a romance novel. So, I tried googling, and sure enough…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! 😀

      “The Aurora Experiment” does have a sci fi edge to it. But if you don’t think it relates well enough to what happens in the story… I guess my best advice would be to wait and see if any new possibilities pop up on their own. Sometimes with titles, it’s better to let them come to you than to force them. Hope that helps in some way.

      Like

  8. I so wish I has this post for back when I was trying to come up with my title! I didn’t get think of it until after I’d already finished the book and then I had an epiphany moment. I really like your title! I’m glad you’re happy with it. I’d like to add that it’s also important to pay attention to how your title abbreviates. My second work in progress I almost called Aliens, Sorcery, and Secrets…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s sort of what happened to me, Molly. It happened about 8 days before I finished the first draft of TKC, on a Sunday night as I was getting ready for bed. Suddenly the title hit me – and I was so excited that I had trouble falling asleep! *lol* Sometimes you just have to let your titles come to you instead of forcing them.

      I’m glad you like the title, btw! 😀 Thank you!

      😮 Very good point about the abbreviations. I didn’t think of that! You must be glad you caught yourself there…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great title! It certainly makes me want to read your novel.

    I also struggle with titles, but they usually emerge before the final draft. I find titles are usually less of a problem when I write fantasy, but the downside is they often come out sounding like every other fantasy title.

    Enjoyed this post – great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ann! 😀

      I hear you on finding a unique title for a fantasy novel. So many of the titles out there already sound alike, since they use many of the same words – especially in epic, historical, or high fantasy. I guess the trick is for fantasy writers is to find something they’re happy with and then… not worry that it sounds like one that already exists, as long as not word for word the same? *shrugs*

      Like

      • I think you’re right. I mean, you have to give the reader the idea that it’s fantasy, and with that it’s hard to try something completely new. But I think the standard fantasy titles are standard because they work, so that’s fine too. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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  13. Brilliant article. I think the Keeper’s Curse is a great title, very fantasy-ish, and it does intrigue me as to what the Keeper is, and what the Curse is. Titles are hard to come up with, I have several WIP’s that only have working titles at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Titles can be buggers, I agree with you on that. But I think it’s better to have a working title than none at all. If it doesn’t have a working title, it feels like raising a child but never giving her a name. *eek* So you’re doing the right thing.

      And thanks for your comments about TKC’s title. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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