It happens without warning. You’re in the middle of your manuscript when the heavens part and divine inspiration beams down on you, gifting you with the perfect title for your book. You rattle off a new title page on your keyboard, then pause, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it…
Yeah. That would be nice.
The harsh reality is that many of us rack our uncooperative brains for weeks in a fruitless search for a title. And when divine inspiration doesn’t appear and we’re nearing the point of desperation, we clutch at a semi-random title that feels only mediocre. We settle.
If you are in that latter category, take heart: every book in the history of literature is a lesson on how to choose a title. Let them guide you, and you’ll find a title that fills you—and your readers—with delight.
What makes a good title?
Like your book’s cover, a title straddles the line between artistic expression and marketing science. In conjunction with your cover, a title should be memorable, intriguing, brief, indicative of the genre, suggestive of the book’s tone, and unique.
It’s virtually impossible to achieve all of these qualities, but keep them in mind as you sift through possible titles. If you’ve hit at least half of these marks, you may have a winner on your hands.
So, that’s what we’re looking for. Where do we find it?
Drawing inspiration from those before you
Title tend to fall into fairly predictable categories which we’ll examine below. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the most popular styles.
Titles can be drawn from:
The protagonist, antagonist, or other character.
Examples: Frankenstein, Don Quixote, A Man Called Ove, Odd Thomas, Lolita
An alternative to a name: the protagonist or antagonist’s occupation, physical traits, or intangible qualities.
Examples: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Hobbit, The Kite Runner, The Martian
The location of the story. A popular choice for books which emphasize setting and a sense of place.
Examples: Wuthering Heights, Salem’s Lot, Peyton Place, Watership Down
A time relevant to the story. Seen in historical dramas and science fiction, these titles can highlight a particular event in history, or emphasize the story’s distance from the present day.
Examples: 1984, August 1914, The Diamond Age, 11/22/63
A pivotal event (and sometimes the inciting event) in the story.
Examples: Contact, Murder on the Orient Express, The War of the Worlds
A key element in the story, often a MacGuffin.
Examples: Green Book, The Maltese Falcon, The Time Machine, The DaVinci Code
Character plus Plot Element
A plot element like the ones above, but personalized.
Examples: Charlotte’s Web, Ender’s Game, Sophie’s Choice, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
A catchy phrase or fragment of dialogue, especially one with a metaphorical meaning, can make a unique and compelling title.
Examples: Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Name of the Rose
An evocative metaphor for the events or characters of the story.
Examples: Night, The Thorn Birds, Eclipse
Titles which incorporate hidden or layered meanings—or even puns—can be especially memorable.
Examples: All the Light We Cannot See, Hidden Figures, Grave Peril
References to classic literature, poem, or religious texts. Shakespeare and the Bible dominate this category to the point where it’s quite difficult to find a quote that hasn’t been used.
Examples: Band of Brothers, East of Eden, Catcher in the Rye, The Fault in Our Stars
Aphorism or Idiom
A well-known figure of speech, or an alteration of one. Very popular with mysteries and thrillers.
Examples: Eye of the Needle, Close to the Bone, Bleeding Edge, You Only Live Twice
The human brain loves repetition. A catchy, alliterative phrase imparts a certain energy to your title, and can help it stick in your audience’s mind.
Examples: Smokin’ Seventeen, A Dance with Dragons, Run Rabbit Run
A theme or emotion from the story.
Examples: Misery, Pride and Prejudice, Freedom
A summation of the story itself. These titles usually signal a first-person narrative.
Examples: Life of Pi, The Handmaid’s Tale, Diary of a Wimpy Kid
After you’ve read through the list, pick a book at random from your shelves and try to reverse engineer the title. Which of these categories does it fall into? Is there a deeper meaning to the title? Does it satisfy the requirements of a good title?
Next, try to apply that same technique to your own book. Write down at least one title for your book in that same style. If you can think of multiple titles, great! Brainstorm. Free associate. This is not the time to be critical, though: you want a long list of candidates, so give yourself permission to list anything that comes to mind. What seems at first like a stupid idea may turn out to be one piece of a brilliant solution. Don’t be afraid to collect those scraps and knit them together.
Finally, with your full list in hand, apply a little KonMari decluttering. Scratch off anything that doesn’t spark joy. If you’re left with multiple titles, use Nathan Roten’s title bracket system to pick a winner, or present a short poll to your peers and beta readers to find the crowd favorites.
When you have one or more candidates, perform a search Amazon and Google to see if it’s been done before. Although titles cannot be copyright and duplicates are common, you want your title to be as unique as possible. If several authors before you have had the same idea, consider choosing a more distinctive option.
Over to you
Which of your book titles is your favorite, and how did you come up with it? Let us know in the comments below!Looking for the perfect title for your book? Here's where to find inspiration. — by @johndoppler Click To Tweet