On December 2, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …my writing buddy and I were talking about names, and since she’s not a blogger, I thought I’d ask and see what you and the other bloggers thought on the subject. How important do you think the name of your book is? On one hand, it’s just a name. But on the other, when you’re at a library or bookstore, all you see is the spine of a book – just the name and the author, no description, no picture. How important do you think the name of a book is if you’re going to have it published, and how do you come up with the title? I loved the names of The Wish because it made me want to know what the wish was, and Fairest because it gave me the idea, right away, that it was a fairytale, probably snow white. But I have a lot of trouble figuring out good titles, and so does my friend. Your thoughts?
Yes, titles are important. They help sell books. In libraries and bookstores they contribute to a reader’s decision to lift the cover.
I just had fun googling “original titles of famous books.” I’m quoting from the internet, so I can’t swear to complete accuracy, but here are a few examples of what I found: Impressions for Pride and Prejudice; All’s Well that Ends Well for War and Peace; Trimalchio in West Egg for The Great Gatsby; Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice for Mein Kampf; The Last Man in Europe for 1984. For a few minutes’ entertainment, you can google more titles.
The worst title of any book I’ve read, in my opinion, is War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (for adults). Interesting book, but, whoa!, that title. I think Chris Hedges, the author, tried to cram his entire thesis into those few words. If you look at the first titles above, some of those early attempts may have had the same problem. Too bad Hitler thought up a better title for his opus! The course of history might have been different if he’d gone with his first impulse!
Let’s analyze a little what makes the good titles work. Alliteration helps a title along. Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby have it. Ella Enchanted, too, although I think short vowels make the weakest kind of alliteration and hard consonants, like p and k or hard c, make the strongest. Peter Pan is better than Silas San would have been, not that James M. Barrie ever thought of Silas for his hero.
Short titles pack a punch, which is why 1984 is better than The Last Man in Europe. Same for Great Gatsby. I like the title of Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me, although it may be a tad egotistical. The movie makers shortened The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which I prefer) to Hugo, I suspect to power up the punch.
War and Peace is conceptual because the terms are opposites, obviously. Pride and Prejudice is conceptual too, but the meaning of both words has altered somewhat over time, so the title probably doesn’t convey the sense of the book the way it must have in the early 1800s; still, the alliteration makes it work. I’m spinning here, but Sensibility in Sense and Sensibility also has had a meaning shift, and I don’t think that title is as successful anymore because the alliteration isn’t as strong.
1984 is intriguing, or was when the year was in the future. What will life be like then? The Great Gatsby intrigues too. Who or what’s a Gatsby, and what’s great about him or it? As writeforfun says, The Wish makes the reader wonder. In the young-adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, it’s the Nothing that revs up the curiosity more than the Astonishing. A made-up word can work if the sound of it is satisfying – and if there’s a reason for it within the book.
I’ve suggested a few hallmarks of a successful title that you can use in crafting your own: alliteration, punch, intrigue, conceptual interest. For punch, try a one-word title or two short words. You can get intrigue with a title of any reasonable length, like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the novel by Carson McCullers (high school and above, if I remember correctly), a terrifically appealing title.
Try a title with emotional appeal, too. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has that too. Or your title can have psychic or psychological interest, like the word “mad” in the title (if it applies) will get the imagination going. Of course any title we come up with has to connect with the story. A clever title out of left field will infuriate the reader.
Legions of books are eponymous: Harry Potter, Peter Pan, Heidi, Bambi, Emma, Zorro (good one!), Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Eragon, Forrest Gump. They’ve lasted. A name is always an option, even a plain name. Names fascinate us. They’re portals to the person within or the book within.
My titles generally arrive without much thought, but they’re not always the final title. Originally I called Ella Enchanted Charmont and Ella. Then Char stopped being quite as important as Ella and it became Ella. The HarperCollins people thought that wasn’t good enough (I agree), and asked me for other suggestions. One was Enchanted Ella; they switched the words, and voila! The Wish was The Wish until my editor asked me for something else and I came up with a long and trendy title, which I also liked and no longer remember. She took it and then returned to The Wish again. Originally I called Ever Dancing the Wind, which works for the story. HarperCollins people said that title wasn’t “big” enough, so I suggested a title that also went with the story – Gone With the Wind! Everyone laughed, and I had to think of something else.
In my mind Beloved Elodie has always been that, except for a while there when I didn’t know what the title would be. Originally when I thought of it, my idea was that all the people in her life love her but no one does what she wants. The book evolved, and that’s no longer the case, but the title still applies. However, my editor has already expressed doubt about the title. It’s emotional, simple, powerful, but it may suggest a love story, which the book isn’t.
So I’ll make lists. After writing this post I’ll think about alliteration, punch, intrigue, meaning, emotional and psychic appeal and I’ll probably tear out some hair. I may ask for help here as I did with A Tale of Two Castles and got it from lots of you, and April came up with the final title. So you can ask for aid. Your editor will help, too, will probably make suggestions, and, at the very least, will tell you if your title isn’t working.
I just looked at the spines of a few books. Even though there’s little space, the publisher uses that narrow strip to great advantage. There’s type, type size, relative size of name to title, color, a logo, maybe even a smidgen of art. Your title doesn’t have to go it entirely alone. I’ve pulled out books on the strength of the appeal of the spine. Then the words have to take it from there.
Here are some title prompts:
∙ Retitle a book you love. Some classics have beloved titles because they’re established and it’s hard to think of them by another name. But can you? For example, maybe you can improve on Little Women.
∙ Write the flap copy (the description that appears on the flap of hard-cover books and on the back of paperbacks) for a book called Evil. Make up what it’s about without writing the story. It’s fun to write flap copy. You get to throw in all the adjectives and adverbs that you avoid in your actual stories. The more hype the better.
∙ Without writing the stories, jot down a dozen great titles.
∙ Pick one of the titles and write the first chapter. If you like, keep going.
∙ List ten titles for the story you’re working on now, even if it already has a title.
Have fun, and save what you write!