How To Pick a Title For Your Book
Saul Bottcher, IndieBookLauncher.com
Having trouble picking a title for your book? Here's a simple formula that will help you create a great title:
(essence of your book) + (a twist) = your title
Simple enough, right? Read on for the details!
The Essence of Your Book
First, ask yourself a simple question: “What is my book really about?”
The answer might come to you instantly, or it may take some time. You might find you have several possible answers—that's okay! More answers can give you more options for your title, but make sure you only include an answer if you truly feel it describes the essence of your book.
You may need to return to this question over the course of several days. Eventually, you'll come up with a single answer. Let's call this your subject.
And guess what? You might already have your title!
Here are some examples of titles that can emerge directly from the book's subject:
- The protagonist's place in society or history: The Last of the Mohicans
- The protagonist's unique personality, abilities, or attitude: Bridget Jones's Diary
- A dominating antagonist: The Magus, Hannibal, Jaws
- A McGuffin: The Da Vinci Code, The Andromeda Strain, The Purloined Letter
- A special place, society, or world: Ringworld, Dune, The Beach
- An event that drives the action: The Hunger Games
- The over-arching themes of the book: Pride and Prejudice
On the other hand, a direct statement of your subject might not have any special ring to it.
This is where the twist comes in.
Assuming you didn't strike gold in part one, it's time to complete the equation by adding a twist.
What you want to do is take your subject and transform it to add intrigue, give it a pleasing sound, and make it more unique.
There are countless ways that you might do this. Here are a number of examples:
- If your subject is a character, ask how they see themselves and restate the title that way. For example, Holden Caulfield wouldn't be a very exciting title, but the way Holden Caulfield sees himself—as The Catcher in the Rye—makes a great title.
- If your subject is a flawed character, use a self-description that emphasizes their flaws. For example, a novel about a mediocre-but-egotistical salesman might be titled The Best Damn Salesman on the East Coast.
- Ask how a particular character would feel about your subject, then restate your title through that emotional filter: A Mother No More
- Ask “when” or “where” about your subject, and use the answer to create an indirect reference instead of a direct one. For example, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a more compelling title than Airstrip One or Oceania, which are the actual names of the dystopia described in the book.
- Identify a unique point of perspective in your book, then restate your title in a way that makes this point of perspective clear: Bears Without Hats
Add Imagery, Metaphor, or Emotion
- Use a visual description from your manuscript. For example, Hills Like White Elephants evokes a strong visual image, whereas Conversation at a Train Station would not.
- Use a metaphor from your manuscript. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird refers to dialogue in the novel, but is also a metaphor for the killing of innocence or the innocent
- Consider the feelings or aspirations of a particular character toward your subject. For example, A Prayer For Owen Meany refers to John Wheelwright's mourning of Owen Meany (while also alluding to the religious themes of the book).
Use Dialogue from your Manuscript
- Gone With the Wind is an expression used by Scarlett O'Hara, which in the title stands as a metaphor for the social changes sweeping through the American South
- Monsters of Men refers to a character's statement regarding the effects of war
Add Intrigue or Curiosity
- Create a question: Who is to Blame?, Where is Joe Merchant?
- Create an implied question by including the name of something unfamiliar: (what is) The Da Vinci Code, (who is) The Great Gatsby
- Create curiosity by mentioning something clearly important without explaining it: How I Escaped Alcatraz, The Surprise In Mary Myers' Coffin
- Express the central theme as a dilemma: Honour or Survival
- Think about some burden or restrictions surrounding your subject, and restate your title to incorporate those ideas: Indentured Donovan, What Krieger Knew
- Ask “who is responsible” or “who is affected” and restate your title with their name incorporated: Sophie's Choice, Sally After Sal
- Think about a location, be it literal or a metaphor for a state of being, and incorporate that into your title: Valley of the Dolls, Luck and Death at the Edge of the World
Add Comparison or Juxtaposition
- Juxtapose your subject with a contrasting idea: War and Peace
- Combine two ideas that gain extra meaning when used together: King Arthur: 2215
- Restate your subject as a comparison of two ideas, plus a value judgment: Better Dead than Unpopular
- Incorporate alliteration: Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, Monsters of Men
- Incorporate rhyme: Crime of the Times
- Create an utterance: I Capture the Castle, Don't Ever Leave Me
Simple Additions or Changes
- Add an action word to the main idea: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Add a descriptive word to the main idea: Brave New World
- Use a character's title in place of their proper name: The Lord of the Rings
- Make a generic character name more specific: Anne of Green Gables
- Upgrade a commonplace word to a more specific, powerful, or unique word.
Making Your Final Choice
At this point, you probably have several possible titles.
The first thing you should do is let them sit for a day or two. When you come back to them, you may find you have some new ideas—maybe even some great ones. You can repeat this step as often as you want; when you go a whole day without any new ideas, the well is probably dry.
Now it's time to get some feedback on your ideas. Here's who you should ask, in order of preference:
- People who have enjoyed your previous work
- People who don't know your work, but like to read similar work by other authors
- People who don't read much, but enjoy movies or other entertainment that has something in common with your work
Don't put much stock in feedback from people who don't enjoy your work or your genre, even if they're friends or family. Remember, you're mainly concerned with how your audience (and prospective audience) will react to your title. People who dislike your genre may dislike your title as well, even if it's a good one.
Testing Your Title
When you've arrived at your favourite, take a look at our companion article, Practical Considerations for Your Book Title. It contains advice to help you make sure your book can easily be found on Google and on book-selling websites, as well as some common pitfalls to avoid.