Coming Up with a Title

Your title is usually the first thing a potential reader will notice about your story. You have only one chance to hook them in. Having a good title can mean the difference between having your story read, and having your story passed by. You have to make your titles powerful.

First, a title should:

  • Be simple and clear
  • Catch the reader's eye
  • Make a bold or intriguing statement
  • Make the reader want to read the summary
  • Suit your target audience. (Think of the difference between a children's book title and an adult's book title.)

Types of Titles:

Most titles will fit into one of the following categories:

Object Titlesó Examples: Sword of the Rightful King (Jane Yolen), Blood Trail (Nancy Springer)

Name Titlesó Examples: Keeper of the Night (Kimberly Willis Holt), Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgommery), The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien)

Place Titlesó Examples: The Goblin Wood (Hilari Bell), Birdland (Tracy Mack), Inside My Head (Reginald S. Lewis)

Theme Titlesó Examples: Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Twists and Turns (Janet McDonald)

Event Titlesó Examples: Faerie Wars (Herbie Brennan), Boy Meets Boy (David Levithan), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

Idiom (Speech/Phrase) Titlesó Examples: Wonder When Youíll Miss Me (Amanda Davis), The Usual Rules (Joyce Maynard)

If You're Stuck:

If you're having trouble thinking of a title, try getting inspiration in one of the following ways:

  • Grab a poetry book and flip through it for phrases that catch your attention.
  • Search for quotes on the internet relating to your story's theme. ie: 'Death Quotes' or 'Forgiveness Quotes'
  • Pick a phrase or fragment of a sentence from your story that sums it up
  • Pick a line from your story that sticks out as humorous or interesting, even if it's a minor passing detail.
  • Get inspiration from song lyrics

Remember, though, that a lot of song titles are copyrighted and therefore cannot be used. Fragments of lyrics are usually acceptable; just make sure you mention the artist's name, the song title, and other relevant information in your disclaimer.

A general note is to always pursue originality. If you fancy using a song lyric, you should stay away from popular lyrics because theyíve already set up an audience, and readers may or may not click depending on if they like that song or not. You wouldnít want someone to misjudge your story because of some preconceived belief. The same goes for any of the other kinds of titles.

Finding Some Good Examples from Published Literature:

Now, letís take a foray into a library. Imagine that youíre a guest with about an hour on your hands with which you can read. Letís also imagine that you have amnesia, and so you havenít heard of any of these titles before:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo
    by Alexandre Dumas
  • Loveís Labors Tossed
    by Robert Farrell Smith
  • Oh the Glory of It All
    by Sean Wilsey
  • The Great Gatsby
    by F. Scott Fitzgerald -Anne of Green Gables
    by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Devil in the White City
    by Erik Larson
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
    by C.S. Lewis
  • Tomorrow When the War Began
    by Marsden, John
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
    by ZZ Packer
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
    by J.K. Rowling
  • The Big Empty
    by Stephens, J.B
  • Breathing Underwater
    by Flinn, Alex
  • Kissing the Rain
    by Brooks, Kevin
  • Dancing Shoes
    by Noel Streatfield
  • 10 Things to Do Before I Die
    by Ehrenhaft, Daniel
  • Feeling Sorry for Celia
    by Moriarty, Jaclyn
  • The Lord of the Rings
    by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Bound
    by Napoli, Donna Jo.

Which book would you choose, having no prior background knowledge? Even some of the known classics donít appeal as much to me as some of the books that are lesser known.

None of these titles really have much in common. Some are short, some are long, some are funny, some are sad. Now, take a look at the check list at the top of the page. What do you notice? Many of the most intriguing examples fulfill each item on that list. However, some of them simply donít, even though they are good books.

Iíll pick on my favorite to illustrate this point. The Count of Monte Cristo. At first glance, it could be a good title, but it doesnít stand out to me as some of the others do. Itís simple and clear, it might catch my eye (though thatís doubtful), and it would suit the target audienceó if I were interested in reading a history because thatís what it sounds like to me.

If one were to tweak the title just a bit, and change it to The Mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of the Count of Monte Cristo, or even The Count of Monte Cristoís Devious Traps, itís going to have a much better chance. With any of the mentioned titles that I just made up, it is still simple and clear, it catches a readerís eye, makes a bold or intriguing statement, gives me a desire to pick it up off the shelf and read the summary, and it hits the target audience (readers who want fiction).

Interesting words, little known topics, alliteration, plays on popular words and phrases, just about anything can serve to make a smashing title. Let your ideas simmer for a while, brilliant titles donít always come at the drop of a hat.

Those Pesky Chapter Titles:

Chapter titles can be tricky as well. Creative is good, but sometimes less is more. In essence, the same rules and suggestions that apply to story titles apply to chapter titles. When in doubt, though, pick a tip:

  • Name the chapter after the main plot point
  • Use a line from an important/moving part of dialogue or narration
  • Look to lyrical excerpts for inspiration and suggestions
  • Ask yourself what one or two words sum up the tone of the chapter
  • Name the chapter after a song or poem that carries the same emotion youíre trying to portray
  • Use a relevant turn of phrase of adage

Remember that chapter titles, like the story title and your summary, are meant to draw the reader in by instilling a sense of curiosity. You donít want to be overly revealing, so never use anything such as, ďRon Finds Out,Ē because then the reader already know exactly what happens before reading. Be ambiguous. Be mysterious. And when all else fails, choose the first tip and name the chapter after the most important plot point; for example, if the chapter is about Luna discovering a coveted secret, you should try loosely basing your title off that. Itís okay to be subtle.

Whatever you decide, never forget that choosing a title is part of the writing process, and as such is fair game for betas and moderators. Getting a second and third opinion is always a plus. Try taking a poll among your friends. Donít tell them what the poll is about or what the story itself is aboutó just ask them which title they find most intriguing. Majority always rules.

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