Wednesday, February 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, February 04, 2015 20 comments
Kimberly Joy Peters, 2010; School Library Journal
Titles are tricky, no doubt about it. Your title, like your cover art, is an important marketing tool. A good title should communicate in such a way that it appeals to your core audience.

Here are a few things I've gleaned, largely from my experience as a reader.

Intrigue by raising questions

Titles 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 things

As 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 terms 

Words 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 content

This 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 works

Some 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 story

A 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 names

Titles 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 rewards

If 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?


  1. Great advice! I've been struggling to come up with a name for the new novel I'm working on and this is just what I needed. Thanks!!

    1. You were actually my inspiration to write the post, when you noted a few days ago the difficulty of coming up with a title. I thought, hey, I should blog about titles that grab me and what features they have! So thank YOU! :-)

  2. Great tips and thinking about the books I picked up, all the titles had these qualities.

    1. Glad you found them useful. I'm no marketing expert, but when I thought through effective titles, these were some features that popped out to me.

  3. I like book titles that give a hint to the story content. If the title intrigues me and book cover intrigue me, I'll read the book blurb.

    I'm lousy at picking titles for my own stories though.

  4. This is where beta readers can be helpful. Often they can identify the loaded words or cool image/phrase in your book, because they have some critical distance.

  5. I'm trying to come up with a new title right now (an agent suggested I chance mine). This post will come in handy. Thanks.

    1. Good luck with it! As an experiment, you can try out several of these kinds of titles and see which one the agent likes best.

  6. Wonderful tips! I love the titles that come from somewhere, and the juxtaposed good-bad ones. I struggle with titles quite a bit, and sometimes my title just comes from a snatch of dialogue from the story and I hope it's okay. Recently, my short story, "When Okay is Enough" went live and I felt like it was a decent title, but it still bugs me . . . although I think it fits a boy-girl contemporary friendship that isn't romance kind of story.
    Anyway, thanks for the tips!

    1. Most writers I know struggle with titles, unless they came up with the title first, then wrote a story to fit it. There are so many elements to juggle--your content's tone and genre among other considerations.

  7. I'm a major fan of single word titles. Not sure why. Maybe it's because it gives me a glimpse at what the story could possibly be about, but makes me think of the many ways it could. Great tips! I especially love the first two.

    1. I'm on the fence about that particular trend. It can be intriguing or simply another way of being vanilla. A lot depends on how suggestive or dynamic the one word is, and whether other books have something similar.

  8. Titles are some of the hardest things to come up with. Most of the time I leave my WIP with a buzzword and hope for the best by the end. :( Thanks for the tips!

    1. The working title is a pretty common practice. Often the story's very strongest thematic elements aren't clear until after several revisions, after all.

  9. There's so much to coming up with the perfect title for your book. These are perfect hints.

    1. I didn't even get into the genre issue! That adds another layer of complication. These are characteristics--broad categories--I've noted in titles that grabbed me as a reader.

  10. Awesome thoughts, Laurel! I totally need to bookmark this post and share.

  11. These are some great things to think about! While working on a WIP, I usually change the title at least twice before I'm happy with it.

    1. I hear you. It can take quite a few permutations to find a really great title. My debut had three previous titles--the draft working title, then two others on revisions before I landed with the one it published under.