|Kimberly Joy Peters, 2010; School Library Journal|
Here are a few things I've gleaned, largely from my experience as a reader.
Intrigue by raising questionsTitles that spark curiosity because they raise a question are often very effective. Consider these examples
Chaim Potok's The Chosen: Why is this person chosen? For what purpose?
Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall: What is beyond it? Something good? Something scary?
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Who are they? Why are they carrying things? What sort of things?
Terry Pratchett's Shall I Wear Midnight: How could someone wear a time of day? What could that mean?
Juxtapose unexpected thingsAs a reader, I'm quick to click through to a description if the title intriguingly pairs things I don't expect to see together. Some examples:
Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
Use loaded termsWords with a heavy history--whether negative or positive--or an ominous double meaning can similarly intrigue
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Water's Edge by Robert Whitlow
Juxtapose the title's tone with your contentThis technique will require some finesse with choosing cover art to bring the dissonance to full force. Consider these examples:
Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos: a once-prosperous Cuban woman must rebuild her life in the US working as a cleaning lady.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: The church pageant goes hilariously wrong in every possible way when a family of tough, bad kids are cast in some of the roles.
Allude to other worksSome titles effectively compress an important theme by calling to mind another book, poem, song, etc. in which that same theme is explored.
Sins of the Fathers by Susan Howatch calls to mind a Bible/Torah passage from Exodus 20 about generational patterns of bad behavior
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard references an R.E.M. song about suicide ideation
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner references a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing," indicating some of the unusual narration experiments that will be part of the experience.
Highlight an evocative line, image or concept used in the storyA Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore highlights protective measures that fail
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery highlights a line by the precocious tween narrator about self protection
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson highlights a moment when the protagonist's conception of her place in the universe is altered and enlarged
This can sometimes fall flat, if the pet phrase doesn't reflect well the content of the story. Sarah Dessen's Keeping the Moon is an example. Neither of the key words in the title appear much, and it gives the impression that the book will heavily feature stargazing or some nocturnal adventures, or alternately that the story is SciFi/Fantasy when it is in fact realistic fiction about a teen girl's summer gone wrong.
Be cautious about using namesTitles like Julie's Song or Josh's Journey or Eloise don't really tell me anything about the genre or content because I don't know who these people are. In fact, these titles are so vanilla, I expect the book to be similarly bland.
Names can work if they're unusual, like My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, or Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, because they hint at another time or culture that will be explored in the story.
Famous people's names will always be a draw, because they anchor your work in a specific set of referents (time, place, area of expertise), giving some sense of what the story is about. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet are some examples.
Including an unusual element with a name will make it stand out. For example, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
Remember that copying has risks and rewardsIf you discover your perfect title has already been used, can you go ahead? Well, yes and no. There are a number of things to consider before taking the plunge.
As far as I know, it's fairly unusual for a title to be trademarked, but it pays to check so you don't get sued. If there are a dozen other works with the same title, you will have trouble standing out. If you copy an unusual title of a well-known work, say The Thorn Birds, expect lots of hate from fans of the original. If the only other work with the same title is by a bestselling author, you can get a boost in visibility in searches BUT (big caveat) if people pick up your work by mistake, they may leave scathing reviews and engage in other trollish behavior because they'll feel duped.
That doesn't mean that mix-ups can't happen that aren't your fault at all. Author Emily Schultz published a book about a decade ago called Joyland. Then Stephen King released a book years later with the same title. Schultz got a big bump in royalties because of reader confusion, but also some big headaches. You can read her story here.
What are some book titles you consider "standouts"? Why do they appeal to you?