When writing a story, sometimes titles come easily, other times hard. This is something the self-published author has to think about. Traditionally published authors don’t need to get invested in the title. Marketing departments will decide for you.
Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.from Alison Winn Scotch, writer
Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.from Boxcars, Books and a Blog
THE TITLES OF FILM
Here’s what Robert McKee has to say on the subject of film titles. He is talking about titles as part of a film’s ‘paratext’, a term more frequently used by academics.
To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master your genre and its conventions. If a film has been properly promoted, the audience arrives filled with expectancy. In the jargon of marketing pros, it’s been “positioned”. “Positioning the audience” means this: We don’t want people coming to our work cold and vague, not knowing what to expect, forcing us to spend the first twenty minutes of screentime clueing them toward the necessary story attitude. We want them to settle into their seats, warm and focused with an appetite we intend to satisfy.
Positioning of the audience is nothing new. Shakespeare didn’t call his play Hamlet; he called it The Tragedy of Hamlet. Prince of Denmark. He gave comedies titles such as Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, so that each afternoon at the Globe Theater his Elizabethan audience was psychologically set to laugh or cryStory
McKee then writes about the 1980s film Mikes Murder as an example of bad positioning, because the audience expected a crime plot when what they got was a coming-of-age story with Debra Winger. Although this was a good coming-of-age story, word spread that it wasn’t very good. It had attracted the wrong audience.
The fewer the words, the more important the title. Sometimes a painting only makes sense when you know its title. Picture book titles are also particularly important:
Since the amount of verbal text in picturebooks is limited, the title itself can sometimes constitute a considerable percentage of the book’s verbal message.from How Picturebooks Work by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott
The paratext of children’s stories is more reliable. When describing how he jumped from being a child reader into being a reader of adult fiction, Francis Spufford found titles of adult books to be far less dependable than those for children:
If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it, with claws and wings and wild raptor eyes. If it was called The Perilous Descent you could count on it being about a descent that was perilous: two World War Two airmen stranded on a sandbank fall through a hole into an underground passage, and go down and down and down, through shafts and chasms, until they land by parachute in a subterranean country peopled by the descendants of shipwrecked refugees. Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. Try The Middle of the Journey, and you get a bunch of academics in New York State sitting around and talking to each other. Did they set off for anywhere? They did not.The Child That Books Built
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR TITLES?
We’re all choosing titles all the time. Whether it’s a blog post or a short story, for an app or an essay, or a folder for your family photos, a label for a drop file, or for making a playlist on iTunes, choosing titles is, most of the time, a non-event.
When I’m writing a short story, I usually use a proxy title until I’ve finished. Then I put the ‘writing part’ of my brain to rest and think really, really hard only about the title. I try to see the story from a global point of view – its themes and message. For me, titles usually don’t happen ‘organically’. I really need to focus my mind and I agree with Miss Snark when she says:
It seems to me that titling is a separate skill [from writing itself].Miss Snark
Of course, it’s easier to start with what not to do!
Writers: If you want to give your main character a certain name just so your title can be a pun using that name, don’t do it.@sarahlapolla
Taking a random sample of books which I ‘saw’ people buy on Book Depository (no, that’s not so creepy – it’s a widget on their site), here are a few titles which must have jumped out at me at some stage. Others come from my own bookshelf and Best Of lists from last year.
TITLES WHICH INCLUDE WORDS YOU MIGHT FIND ON THE COVER OF A SUPERMARKET MAGAZINE
This kind of title promises some sort of mystery to follow, a secret shared, or implies some sort of pact between author and reader.
- Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller
- The Outcast by Sadie Jones
- The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Hornby
Although none of those books is the slightest bit reminiscent of a women’s magazine, I would imagine the words ‘scandal’, ‘outcast’ and ‘true story’ have a similar psychological effect on a consumer: salaciousness and schadenfreude.
- Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
By ‘ambiguous’ I mean: contains homophones. ‘Stranger’ has two meanings here, and I haven’t read that book, but ideally I suppose the book is about both senses of the word. This title jumped out at me because the title of one of my own short stories is ‘How To Leave A Stranger’. In that case, ‘leave’ has a double meaning: ‘How to get away from someone you don’t know very well’ and ‘How to meet with a stranger for a limited period of time and yet fail to get to know them at all’.
There are also titles with metaphorical double meanings, like most episodes of Mad Men, for instance, which are inclined to refer both to something literal in the episode and to something figurative in the characters’ arcs.
I like titles that can achieve more than one task at once like that; the title then becomes a sort of easter egg, in that you don’t fully understand it until you’ve read the story or seen the episode, thus creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ division between those who know the story and those who don’t. Those who don’t know are forever locked out… Okay, now I’m probably turning this whole title thing into a conspiracy theory.
TARGETED AT A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE
- Adverbs (I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked up Daniel Handler’s short story collection if I weren’t interested in language. I’d say short story writers have more leeway for creativity and ambiguity and all sorts in titles, because it seems to be so that only the most avid of readers pick up short stories in the first place.)
- Lipstick Jungle (How many blokes picked this one up?)
- Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
As a white man himself, Michael Moore gets away with this title (insofar as he gets away with anything), but I can see how it would be easy to put your foot in it.
THE LANGUAGE OF ADVERTISING
- 10 Short Stories You Must Read This Year
- Get Ahead! Medicine
- Praise! Our Songs And Hymns
- Think And Grow Rich
- Change Your Thinking
- The Secrets Of The Superglue Sisters
Actually I’ve heard a number of people moan about the title of the “10 Short Stories You Must Read This Year” series, which comes out annually in Australia as part of National Reading Month (or whatever it’s called). There’s this contrarian in many of us which makes us avoid doing what we’re told to do, or what we know we’re meant to do, so when I’m told I ‘must’ read these stories, I feel like I’m back at school, preparing for an English exam. (It doesn’t help that the stories aren’t usually very good.)
Here’s another similar but worse example: Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! with a response from author Sally Zigmond (who sings its praises but bemoans its bossy title).
At other times the ‘bossy’ title is clearly jokey.
- Please Ignore Vera Dietz
- Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
Wacky titles make me want to pick up the book to see what on earth it’s about. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘How could someone write a whole book about that?’
- The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown
- Visible Panty Line by Gretel Killeen
Remember when Prince changed his name & no one knew what to call him because no one could say it out loud? Don’t do that to your book.@sarahlapolla
I suppose it might be a useful exercise — when completely stuck — to brainstorm a title which fits into each of these categories (which I have completely made up) and see if any seem appropriate.21 Ridiculous Books That Will Have You Shaking Your Head from Buzzfeed
Sometimes it’s best if titles aren’t fancy at all, especially when the author name alone can sell a book.
- The Collected Stories (Grace Paley)
- The Best of John Wyndham
- New Australian Stories 2
THE MATTER-OF-FACT TITLE
I notice that a title consisting of two words tends to sound matter-of-fact, whereas a longer one can sound wacky/pretentious/intriguing (depending, of course on what those words are!)
- Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
- Mad Meg by Sally Morrison
- The Beach by Alex Garland
- The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Alex Garland’s title implies importance when the title claims an entire cultural space, The Beach. When the film Australia was released, a number of critics were annoyed that the name — representing an entire continent — had now been taken, and the film wasn’t even epic in scope, but rather about a very small group of people who happened to be in Australia. Canada by Richard Ford, same deal. (See my category of ‘Grandiose’ below, sometimes used straight, sometimes a spoof.)
MATTER-OF-FACT BUT SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS
- Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry
THE JUXTAPOSED TITLE, OR DOESN’T QUITE MAKE SENSE GRAMMATICALLY
- A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
- The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
- Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby
- People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
- The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky
- The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
- The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
- The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
- The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
- The Disenchantments
- Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
- Because You Love To Hate Me, various authors
This sort of title seems particularly prevalent right now, or perhaps is more indicative of the sorts of books to end up on ‘Best Of’ lists. Some of these titles remind me of Stephen Pinker’s famous: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’.
- The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman
- Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
- The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil
- Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales For Girls by Danielle Wood
The more retro the title, the more likely a modern audience knows they’ll be picking up a parody. Modern ‘cautionary tales’ are no such thing, though they existed in earnest 100 years ago.
- How To Be Good by Nick Hornby
- How to Disappear by Duncan Fallowell
- Kid Normal by James and Smith
MIGHT BE NON-FICTION BUT ISN’T
These titles often require: ‘a novel’ somewhere on the cover
- The Marriage Plot: a novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Outlaw Album is a collection of stories by Daniel Woodrell
- Salmon Fishing In The Yemen by Paul Today
- A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble
- The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- Call For The Dead by John Le Carre
- The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyn
- After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
- How Fiction Works by James Wood
- Canada by Richard Ford
- Australia, the film
- A Brief History Of Everything by Bill Bryson
WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS ABOUT?
- State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
- There But For The: a novel by Ali Smith
- Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
- The Same Stuff As Stars by Katherine Paterson
The Guardian wrote: There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting “but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …” Which is proof that your title doesn’t actually have to make sense… as long as your book is brilliant, otherwise it probably just looks stupid. The Most Cryptic Titles In Literature and What They Mean from Flavorwire
MAIN CHARACTER(S) AS TITLE
This one is really common.
- Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
- Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen
- The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
- Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
- The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
- The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
SETTING IN THE TITLE
- Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough
- Dublin by Edward Rutherford
- Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
SOCIAL GROUP AS TITLE
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
- The Owl Service by Alan Garner
- A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
ACTION IN THE TITLE
- Calling The Gods by Jack Lasenby
- Fat Kid Rules The World
- One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
- I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill
- I’m A Big Brother
- Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House by Meghan Daum
- Next by James Hynes
- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
- Pure by Andrew Miller
- Wish by Peter Goldsworthy
- Prey by Michael Crichton
- Smut by Alan Bennett
- Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
One possible problem with single word titles is that there is no context whatsoever. I recently recommended Michael Crichton’s Prey to a friend who also enjoys thrillers. She responded with, “It’s um… it’s not a religious novel, is it?” So if you have a one word title, you may benefit from an explanatory subtitle.
There’s also a marketing problem, in which more specific titles will take a potential audience more reliably to the book.
For a definition of a snowclone, see here.
- Colour Me English by Caryl Phillips
- Cookie Craft
- We Need To Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown
- Gay Men Don’t Get Fat by Simon Doonan
Of course, those last three snowclones both came from other hugely successful books of similar titles: Child Craft, We Need To Talk About Kevin and French Women Don’t Get Fat. So now we even have French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris, by Pamela Druckerman.
MODIFIED CLICHES (METALEPSIS)
- A Match Made In High School by Kristin Walker (usually Heaven)
- Farewell Tour Of A Terminal Optimist by John Young (because we more naturally think of ‘eternal optimist’)
MADE UP WORDS
- Atrocitology by Matthew White
- Affluenza by Oliver James
- Retromania by Simon Reynolds
- Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer
- Robopocalypse by
- The Etymologicon by
- Catwitch by Una Woodruff
Some titles are so successful that the neologisms become part of the common language. The good thing about these is that they’re easy for potential customers can find via a search. The bad thing about some of these is that they’re not that easy to spell.
- How Musical Is Man? by John Blacking
- Who Cooked The Last Supper? The Women’s History Of The World by Rosalind Miles
- Four Writers Tell About Their Titles
- A list of books which changed titles between manuscript and publication
- Criteria for a Killer Title
- Book Titles In The Form Of Questions from The Guardian
- Picking Your Perfect Title from Daily Writing Tips
- Book Title Formulas from BookEnds, LLC
- Finding (and losing) Book Titles from Beyond The Margins
- Oddest Book Title Of The Year from Marginal Revolution, and here at Beatties Book Blog
- 12 Book Titles That Came From Poems, From Huffington Post
- The 40 Worst Book Covers And Titles Of All Time, collected by Smashing Hub
- How to find the right title: a brainstorming exercise, from Roz Morris
- 17 Overly Optimistic Book Titles from Mental Floss
- You can judge a book by its title, from Salon
- What’s In A Title? An Editorial Perspective from the Albert Whitman blog
- The Girl Title Trend In Children’s Books
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