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Monday, October 15, 2018

How to Come up with Great Titles

A follower recently asked me if I had a post about coming up with titles, and since I didn't, I decided to write one.

Coming up with titles is weird sometimes.

For example, I have had stories where the title simply "came to me" before I'd even started writing it.

Other times I couldn't come up with or even consider a title until the story was essentially completed.

You can also throw working titles in there--titles you slap onto a WIP until you get further along and really consider it (or until an editor wants to call it something different).

If a title just "came to you," that's great, but you also might want to double check that it is really the best title for the work.

Other than the cover art, the title is perhaps the most important selling point on the book itself. It might be what gets a reader to pick up the novel to look at. (After that, the back cover copy obviously becomes important.) Unfortunately as writers, most of us have no say in what the cover art is--if we are publishing traditionally. But we do have some say in the title.

Often, the best titles capture an interesting image/concept, promises what kind of story the book is, or both. Genre may also factor in.

It's usually better to be more specific than vague. Remember that whole post I did on vagueness? And also this whole post I did on not picking generic details? As a reminder, if something is too vague, the audience doesn't get enough context, and therefore can't care about the story. If something is too generic, it leaves no impression and is forgettable.

One time in my writing group years ago, we decided to go through the bookshelf (near where we met in a library) and find the worst title we could. To this day, some of us still remember that meeting because of that. The worst?

The Land

That was a title. (And the cover art was equally boring.) This is a horrible title, in part because of the points I just made. "The Land" is very vague and very generic. I have no clue what land we are talking about or why I should care about it--I have zero interest in this book (other than the fact the title is so awful). I have no idea what genre it is. Is this something geographical? A Land Before Time wannabe? Who knows.

Now, because I know people are going to go search that title on Amazon, I want you to know that this book did not have a subtitle. It did not have a cover image that conveyed a story. It was just The Land.


So lets talk about some examples that fit into the two categories I named.

1. Captures an interesting (and specific) image or concept.

2. Promises an interesting or specific kind of story

Also, probably worth mentioning is that just because I refer to the title as an example, it does not necessarily mean I have read or watched it--just grabbing examples, some I know, some came up in searches.

Interesting (and Specific) Image or Concept

Mistborn is a good example of this. It takes two images or concepts we are familiar with and smashes them together. We know what mist is. And we know what it means to be born. These are concepts and images that are specific. However, we don't know what it means to be or act Mistborn, so it's intriguing. Maybe this is why we pick up the book. Because we understand enough about those two concepts, but we want to know what this concept means.

Well, next thing you know, you are reading the back cover (which is equally interesting) and then opening the book.

Notice too, that the word mist is something that is associated with mystery and maybe even eeriness. In thick mist, we can't clearly see what's in front of us. It's also a word that has some association with the otherworldly, whether it's from Stephen King's The Mist, or someone in Middle-earth talking about The Misty Mountains.

"Mist" creates a sort of buzz because of its associations and connotations--like those "buzzwords" I talked about in my post, 5 Tricks that Help with Hooks.

Here are some other examples that use this technique:

The Runelords
Lord of the Rings
Night Circus
Jurassic Park
The Raven Boys
The Book Thief
The Hunger Games 
Ghost in the Shell
Legally Blonde
Phantom of the Opera 
Death Note 

Other times, the title may capture a more specific image:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Day the Earth Stood Still
A Princess in Theory
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
The Time Traveler's Wife 
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
To Kill a Mockingbird

Remember, it is not required that you are highly specific, you just need to be specific enough.

Promises an Interesting or Specific Kind of Story

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, this is a title that promises that this story is about Harry. I know that sounds obvious, but it's more than that. This story isn't just about some amazing plot. It's about the daily life of Harry Potter, too. What it's like going to a magical school. It's not always about fighting dark wizards or saving the world. Sometimes it's about dealing with your awful aunt, friends, and schoolwork.

I believe the title was changed to Sorcerer's Stone here in the U.S. because that's better for marketing. A philosopher may be interesting to kids. But from a marketing standpoint, a sorcerer is more interesting, because it implies there will be magic in the book, not philosophy.

So we know that this is a series about a person, but also has fantastical elements or some adventure to it: Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban (again, notice specific images).

Likewise, Diary of a Wimpy Kid immediately conveys what kind of story this is. Like Harry Potter, it's about a person. "Wimpy kid" is interesting because no kids would typically describe themselves as that. "Diary" tells us this is a slice-of-life story, but it's also interesting, because what boy would say they own a "diary"?

Here are some others.

The Kiss Quotient (Romance)
Austenland (this will be about Jane Austen--also, notice the unique concept)
Sherlock Holmes (this is a series about following the intelligent detective, the character)
The President is Missing (pretty obvious, but immediately tells you what kind of story it is)
The Da Vinci Code
National Treasure
War of the Worlds
Sixth Sense
Cowboys and Aliens
Lost in Space
A Series of Unfortunate Events 
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Little House on the Prairie 
The Little Mermaid
Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

These all make promises, about the genre, story structure, emotional appeals, plot, or whatever else. If I'm a huge Jane Austen fan, I might be immediately drawn to picking up a book called Austenland, out of curiosity, at least. This title helps you find the right audience.

Notice, though, that if The Kiss Quotient was a political thriller, then that's going to be a bit trickier to market, because the title has "kiss" in it. (However, in some cases, if you handle it right, that makes it more interesting).

Images and concepts can make promises too. Jurassic Park because of what those words are associated with, promises dinosaurs and theme parks. I immediately get an idea for what kind of story this is.

Worth noting, is this sort of thing is also why people advise in the industry that you use a different pen name for each genre you write in. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is a different story than Jurassic Park by Roald Dahl. Same topic. But completely different stories. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Stephen King would be something totally different.

Daniel Handler writes both under his real name and his pen name Lemony Snicket for two different storytelling approaches.

Some titles use a play on words or a familiar phrase to make a promise.

The Fault in Our Stars - This title comes from a line in Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar (notice how that title tells us what it's about too) where Cassius and Brutus are speaking about how their problems and faults come from within, and not from without--fate or the universe. The Fault in Our Stars implies this is a story about characters dealing with problems and fates that are largely what the universe/fate gave them (in this case, cancer), and not problems from within or brought upon themselves.

There are some benefits for doing this sort of thing. For John Green, using a title that references Shakespeare instantly elevates his persona and his novel. It becomes more important. It sounds scholarly and educated. If you are going to invoke Shakespeare, you must be one of those two things or you must be a pretty good writer (at least that's the impression you give). You know what you are talking about. It still tells us what kind of story this is.

I've seen some people actually take titles of famous works and try to do this sort of thing. It's that association. There are some pros and cons to this. For one, your book might show up in search results for that title, which gives it more exposure, and probably exposure to the right audience. However, it can cause problems because it is the exact same title, sometimes because you are right next to the famous text. How does yours compare? Are people looking for new reading material when they are searching the famous text? Or do they just want the famous text? Also, it can be confusing when people talk about your book.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, a science fiction novel, is very different than Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which is about social issues concerning African Americans. Both are famous, so you almost always have to specify by author.

Here are some (less highbrow) examples of using a play on words or phrase:

Ready Player One
My Little Brony
See No Evil
Dead Men Tell No Tales

There is also,
Hidden Figures

Almost always the title gains significance and more meaning as the audiences reads or watches the story, whether it's because they learn what a Mistborn is or they appreciate more the issues that can come from letting a pigeon drive the bus. Some titles work on multiple levels in this way.

Let's look at M. Night Shyamalan's Signs as an example (I can already hear the booing, but I totally love that movie and many of his others).

"Signs" is one of those buzzwords, because it's associated with a hidden meaning.

But once you see the cover or trailer, you realize it's referring to crop circles. Those are signs left by aliens. We know what the story is about.

But once you watch the movie, you realize that signs also (and actually) refers more to spiritual signs of a higher power, and despite being an alien movie, the protagonist's character arc (and by relation, theme) relates to moving from believing in no meaning of life and no God to believing there are no coincidences and there is a higher power. Mel Gibson's character realizes that what he thought was totally meaningless in one context is actually a sign in a higher, bigger context.

This is a great example of how a title relates to a plot, character arc, and theme.

There are some cases where a book has a title that does not seem to capture an interesting image or concept, nor does it make a clear promise for what kind of story it will be, so you do not have to follow these guidelines, however, I would argue that following them results in more effective titles.

A Word on Working Titles

As I mentioned at the starting, working titles are temporary titles for a project, placeholders for something better. In some situations, you could argue that every title is a working title until it gets published. Editors may decide to change your title.

Working titles can have their own side effects. For one, you might start writing toward it. For example, if your story has "Monkey" in it, you might start incorporating more monkeys. That may or may not be a good thing.

In His Dark Materials, the title of the first book (in the U.S.), The Golden Compass, was actually the novel's working title. The real title became Northern Lights. However, when still writing the novel, Philip Pullman was working with his U.S. editor. When he put the real title on, Northern Lights, his U.S. editor felt cheated in a sense. To him it was The Golden Compass--what it had been through all their communications. This is why the first book has two different titles, depending on where you live. (And while I love the northern lights, honestly, the compass seems to fit the rest of the titles of the trilogy, which reference concepts of magical objects: The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass.)

So that's a unique story of how an editor chose the working title over what became the real title.

In Poetry

Other than the other ways I've mentioned titles can be used, in poetry in particular, titles may work to give additional context--whether it's telling us where the poem takes place, what is concretely happening in the poem, or how to interpret it.

Here is a short one from poet Jack Gilbert as an example.

Woke up suddenly thinking I heard crying.
Rushed through the dark house.
Stopped, remembering. Stood looking
out at the bright moonlight concrete.

Without the title "Divorce," we don't get a lot of context for what this poem is really about. But with the title, we understand that Gilbert is capturing an image, a moment, a concept, of what it's like being recently divorced. Notice how the speaker ultimately looks outside at the concrete, touching on the idea of someone having left.

So titles can also give you context too, though most novel titles probably don't pull off context in this same way.

And there you have it! Probably way more than you wanted to know about titles, but hopefully that helps you guys come up with some good ones!


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