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!

  1. I really like the name "Invisible City" for my WIP, but it implies that the city itself is literally invisible. Really, it's a little government island city that theoretically doesn't exist to protect the secrets there. Titles are the worst part of writing, I think! Usually my documents are saved as "Untitled", "Work-In-Progress", or "This is my story, so don't even think about reading it yet!". I have yet to come up with a good title for any of my stories– except maybe The Last Princess, which is about exactly what the name implies.

  2. I loved this post, Thinking about your first prompt, I thought of two other titles for little women, both are little jokes on my part. Playing Pilgrims and Four Roses in Bloom.

  3. How often do authors get to keep the titles they chose? Mine got changed (from Worldwalkers to Between Worlds, because there was another Worldwalkers out there by an author with a similar name), and I hear that's fairly common. Does the author ever NOT get right of veto on a suggestion?

  4. I always take forever to come up with titles. I'm most of the way through a second draft of a novel right now that still has no title. I'm waiting for it to suddenly come to me…that's usually what happens! I really should brainstorm soon, though…thanks for the tips!

  5. Thanks a ton! This post was so helpful! I'm determined now to try to think of a name – one that fits this criteria, too. At least now I know what I'm looking for:) Thanks a bunch, Gail!

  6. Continuing my last comment, I guess it moves quickly in that I feel like most beginnings have parts where the narrator takes it time in explaining what's going on. Like Ella Enchanted in the beginning she talks a lot about her mom to give backstory. But in my story I give backstory, but it slpped in here and there, and the evets move quickly one after the other making a very short exposition. Is there such a thing as too short? I hope that clarifies it.

  7. I was reading a book by Madeline L'Engle, called "Walking on Water," and I found out that the original title for "A Wrinkle in Time," was "Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which," and the publisher wanted to call it "The Worlds of Charles Wallace." I think it was her mother that came up with the present title.
    To use a more modern example, "The Hunger Games," was originally titled "The Tribute of District Twelve."
    I tend to come up with titles first.

  8. I was reading through some of the past comments, and I'm one of the younger writers on here (I'm a Sophmore in HS)! Wow! Also, I tend to think of cool sounding titles, but no story for them! Anyways, I've almost kinda decided to start on my book, but I'm having isues. It's set in a post-apocalyptic version of the southern U.S., but I'm having trouble working on the time period. I want enough time to pass (after the disaster) for everyone to forget what happened, but I still want houses standing from when the disaster happened. Then, when I try to write the begining (which I thought I had planned out), the wording doesn't sound right! I can't figure out how to put the backstory in, and I'm pretty sure it needs to be told fairly early on. I would be EXTREAMLY grateful for any help!!!! =)

  9. I'm not really sure what the houses are made of (the thought never occured to me!), but probaly about the same as the houses today, since that's what they look like. No electronics, what ever happened knocked everything back about 200 years from now. There's still books, but literacy is considered usless for the most part. My MC can read, though, and has read several books she's found. Most of the people are pretty much nomads, and just wander around to diffrent houses. There are still some "towns" but there more like old west towns.

    I'm trying to fit all the info about my MC's family into the first few paragraphs since she leaves at the beginging of the book and you never actuly meet them. I'm having trouble figuring out how to do this with out it seeming all shoved in there.

  10. I agree with carpelibris! If we never meet the family of the MC, do we need their info? If you do want the information then what you could do instead of putting it all together is give the info in flashbacks. The MC is doing something that calls to mind a memory, and she mentally reminisces about her family. That could help with the backstory. I don't know if it would work in your case, though. Just a thought.

  11. It can be hard to know what the story needs and what you can/should leave out. I just cut 26 pages out of a book, and boy was that hard! I'd written a bunch of scenes I really liked about how the MC comes to be part of the traveling circus that he runs away from. A writer friend pointed out that the story really starts when he runs away. I thought we really needed all those scenes, but so far things are moving along fine without them.

  12. To get back to the original topic, Arg! I thought I had a great title for my WIP, but it turns out it's already the title of a famous person's autobiography. I guess it pays to Google your titles!

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