The words (or word) that make up the title of your novel are the most important of the entire work, because readers do judge a book by its cover. Get the title right and you convey to readers the essence of the book, pique their interest and achieve sales. Choose unwisely, however, and readers pass your book by and leave it to languish on the shelf.
When I write (or ghostwrite) fiction, I have the title set before I begin the first draft, and it anchors me in the writing. Usually, I find that the title walks into my head along with the idea.
But what if the title proves elusive? Then the muse needs a little help.
The good news is that when it comes to fiction titles, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are well-established rules and styles you can follow. Here’s a simple guide to choosing a title for your novel.
Golden rules for titles
Whatever title you choose for your novel, it must:
- Be catchy.
- Be original.
- Be pronounceable.
- Be intriguing.
- Be relevant to the book.
- Fit on the book cover.
- Make sense.
- Not offend anyone.
- Hint at, but not give away, the story.
- Use language that readers easily understand.
Make it memorable, but for the right reasons. And please, please proofread the title carefully before publication.
Considering different angles for titles
The one-word title
Summing up a book in one word is powerful. It’s bold, it’s clear, it’s direct, it grabs the reader. Consider:
If you’re going to use just one word for the title, make sure it really conveys what the book is about, and make it an intriguing and memorable word. Not something like Also or Pharmaceutical or Hillock.
The character-based title
Including your protagonist’s name in your book title says, ‘Here’s a character-driven story.’ Examples include:
- David Copperfield
- Harry Potter and the . . .
- Jane Eyre
- Percy Jackson and the . . .
- Robinson Crusoe
If you’re using a character’s name in the title, it’s really important that you choose the name wisely. For example, if you’ve written a traditional romance novel and you want to have a Romeo and Juliet kind of title, it’s not going to work if the lovers are called Roger and Jemima (well, unless you’re writing a comic romance, or perhaps an erotic one).
The setting-based title
If the setting is a major element of the book, you may decide to bring it into the title, as in:
- Anne of Green Gables
- Brighton Rock
- Mansfield Park
- Private London
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
- Wuthering Heights
- A Passage to India
Setting-based titles convey atmosphere and invite the reader to journey to a place through reading the book.
The somebody-and-the-something-something title
I am, of course, referring to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone / Chamber of Secrets / Prisoner of Azkaban / Goblet of Fire / Order of the Phoenix / Half-Blood Prince / Deathly Hallows.
This is an offshoot of the somebody-and-the-something (or something-something) title, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.
It’s a decent format; it works well. But it’s been done a lot, especially in children’s writing. Take care not to copycat.
The ‘The’ title
A title that begins with ‘The’ is a safe, traditional choice. For example:
- The Miniaturist
- The Da Vinci Code
- The Firm
- The Great Gatsby
- The Hobbit
- The Kite Runner
- The Lord of the Flies
- The Lovely Bones
- The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart
Titles beginning with ‘The’ have gravitas. You can imagine the author is saying, ‘I’m serious about this novel.’ Just make sure serious doesn’t mean boring; The House in the Garden, for example, isn’t very intriguing.
The quirky title
A great way to make an impact with the title is to choose one that makes a reader think, ‘Eh?’ Consider:
- A Clockwork Orange
- A Hat Full of Sky
- Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
- Nineteen Eighty-four
- Sea Otters Gambolling in the Wild, Wild Surf
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog
- To Kill a Mockingbird
If you intend to write more than one novel, you may even make the quirky title part of your brand. One of the distinctive characteristics of a novel by Christopher Brookmyre, for example, is its attention-grabbing title:
- Quite Ugly One Morning
- One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night
- Boiling a Frog
- A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away
- All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye
- A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
- The Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
The inspired title
Some of the best book titles are inspired by literature. For example:
- Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea (from on ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
- By the Pricking of My Thumbs and The Sound and the Fury (both from Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (from John Donne’s ‘Meditation XVII’)
- Of Mice and Men (from the Robert Burns poem ‘The Mouse’)
- Where Angels Fear to Tread (from an Alexander Pope essay)
Also look to other art forms, such as art, music and drama, but do check carefully for any copyright issues.
The title that conveys genre
You may choose a title that clearly conveys the genre of the book. For instance:
- Body Bags and Shallow Graves says crime and murder.
- Burning Embers says passionate romance.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says science-fiction and humour.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being says emotional, philosophical novel.
- Vampire Academy says young adult and paranormal fiction.
The excerpt-of-the-book title
You may choose a title from the text of the book itself. So, for example, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple title is taken from a very powerful sentence whose meaning resonates throughout the book: ‘I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.’
You can, of course, work the other way around and come up with a great title and then weave the words into the book.
Thinking ahead for book series titles
If you’re writing a series of books, your titles need to work together as a set. Here are some angles:
- Have each title fit into an overall theme:
- Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.
- Use the same keyword across all titles:
- Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead To Worse, Dead and Gone, Dead in the Family and Dead Reckoning.
- Kathy Reichs’s Bare Bones, Cross Bones, Break No Bones, Bones to Ashes, Devil Bones, 206 Bones, Spider Bones and Flash and Bones.
- Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls and City of Heavenly Fire.
- Use a similar structure in the titles:
- Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
- George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.
Don’t get too caught up in making your titles match linguistically, however. All that really matters is that it feels like they belong together; that the overarching theme of the series comes through. A hotchpotch of styles can work fine, as in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series:
- Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.
And finally… think from a reader’s point of view
Here’s an article by reader and author Cait Drews entitled ’10 types of book titles (we either love them, forget them, or shout “why” at them)’: http://paperfury.com/10-types-of-book-titles/. It made me laugh – and made me nod in agreement. Required reading if you care about how a reader will connect to your book’s title.