There are three things that draw the attention of potential readers to a book in a bookstore. Cover, author, and title. Covers must appear attractive, eye-catching. Familiarity with authors’ names can prompt purchases. But titles are important for many reasons. A good title must both draw the reader in and be something familiar. Often from titles we as readers can gauge genre and basic idea.
For example, if the title is something like The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell (I only mention this because I am currently reading it), you can clearly tell it is a fantasy with some sort of magic, as well as hinting to an apocalyptic or end to magic by “Last.”
What I am trying to suggest is that titles are extremely important to any type of writing, especially fiction—whether it is a poem, screenplay, novel, or short story. The only thing I am excluding from this are research essays and scientific reports, as their titles are meant to convey the basic idea or argument of the contents, not necessarily intrigue the reader.
How is a great title achieved? Is there a detailed algorithm to creating a perfect title? The answer, as everything in writing is subjective, is yes and no. But maybe these tips to pick a great title will help you.
Length is Important
Tell me this, which of these two titles are you more likely to remember: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or Eragon. Both are great books, by the way, but it is easier to tell which one is more memorable and which one you would forget the title of easily. Give readers a break by not having your title be extremely long or filled with tongue-twisters, and instead create a title that is memorable. I am not saying that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows isn’t amazing, but I am certain that if someone asked me about it I could not repeat the title even if I tried.
As in every rule in writing, this does not mean that long titles are banned. Instead, use them sparingly and only when you have a good reason too.
On the other hand, making a title too short may fall into the opposite problem. If you use a one-word title, you may fall into a group of titles clumped together where yours may not stand apart in the least. Take the word Tainted and search on Goodreads. I found at least five books all titled “Tainted.” One of these books doesn’t really stand apart from the rest. If you do have a one-word title you want to use, make sure no one’s used it before you.
Like length, generic titles are not necessarily bad—look at Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or What the Dead Leave Behind by Rosemary Simpson (both memorable and, in the second case, great books). But similar to short, one-word titles being clumped together, generic titles can suffer a similar fate—not being remarkable.
On the other hand, certain cue-words in titles can be helpful to readers because it aids them in knowing what genre it is. For example, if things like “murder,” “blood,” “death,” or “secret” are contained in the title, the book is bound to be a mystery of a sort. For example, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile tells two very important things: someone will die and the setting is on the Nile. If you are a reading looking for a murder mystery set in an exotic location, you see this title and pick it up.
What I am saying is, if part of the title uses cue-words to help readers guess what the genre is, than that is a good thing. However, if the entire title is too generic, that could work against you.
One of my favorite techniques in choosing a title is to give a simple title a deeper meaning to the story. My best example is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. After all, the story has nothing to do with killing a mockingbird. However, there is one line the father of the main character says in the book, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” What he is saying is that a mockingbird does nothing wrong but sing its beautiful song, so why would you kill it? Similarly, the entire plot revolves around a black man who is persecuted by racists for something he did not do.
When you finish your book, think about the deeper meanings of your story. Why are you telling this story? Why is it important? Are you trying to prove a point, or entertain an audience?
Another example I will give is Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. The fantasy story, of course, surrounds the adventures of guards in a city. The title, at first, seems rather straightforward. But on the dedication page, Pratchett give a hint to more. “They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asked them if they wanted it. This book is dedicated to those fine men.” This dedication gives deeper meaning to what Pratchett was trying to convey in this light-hearted, fun tale.
So look at the heart of your story. Or perhaps something a character says, like in the example of To Kill a Mockingbird, which gives a double meaning to the story.
A bad title is not the end
Now that I spent an entire essay talking about the importance of a story titles, let me jump back a bit by saying that a bad title is not the end of the world. There are many exceptional books whose titles aren’t the more memorable or eye-catching—like most of the books I mentioned throughout this essay.
Don’t stress over the title too much and forget that a good book will stand out on its own. And a good title does not make a bad book good. There are many other things concerning marketing which draws a potential buyer to a book—the cover, the book flap, etc. While of course titles are important, they are not the biggest part of the book—or poem or screenplay. So, give attention to the title but don’t fixate on it too much.
What are your favorite/worst book titles you’ve come across? Do you love/hate certain types of titles? Let me know down in the comments and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,