Picture the scene. You’ve spent months on your latest work – the plot flows perfectly, the characters are engaging, and you’re now ready to send it out into the world. But there’s one problem.
Try as you might, you just can’t think of a good title.
The title is something that writers often neglect until the very end of their writing process, and it’s not hard to see why – their focus is rightly on the content of the actual story. However, a good title is more integral to a story than it might first appear – it tells potential readers about its tone before they’ve even read a word. The feeling that title evokes is crucial in deciding whether or not those potential readers will turn into actual readers.
So, how do you go about choosing a good title?
In my experience, one thing that’s important is knowing the genre of your work. Early in Blood Devotion’s writing process, when I was writing large parts of it in my school lunch breaks, I vividly remember having a teacher of mine see the title page on a computer screen and, curious about it, ask if it was a detective story.
His confusion wasn’t a huge issue per se, but it was my first step to realising that my working title was more ambiguous than I’d originally thought. That’s also a pretty good way to describe the novel in general at this point- as I’ve talked about before on the blog, I didn’t have an outline sorted until much later. This had the knock-on effect of me not really knowing what sort of story I was creating – which lets you know where your work fits in with its competitors. If, for example, a romance novel has a title more befitting a gritty psychological thriller, that may turn longtime readers off your work.
If you’re thinking of publication, there’s a difficult balance that you have to strike between a title being indicative of the type of story you’re writing and not so complex that readers don’t pay you a second look. The books that do this well span genres and time periods – from Gone with the Wind to A Monster Calls. How far you choose to lean to one side or the other is largely a matter of personal choice. Sometimes a short title is enough to spark interest. but other, longer titles can work; think So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
However, titles aren’t things that should be rushed. I used to spend far too much time obsessing over what to call my stories, often before writing one word – and looking back, I can see that this wasted time and energy that could’ve just as easily gone into the writing itself. Remind yourself that it’s okay to use a placeholder for convenience’s sake – “untitled sci-fi epic” might not look that appealing on the shelves, but it’ll help you tell it apart from other documents without sapping your creativity.
One major advantage to taking this approach is that, often, something can pop up in the writing of the story that inspires a title. This has happened a number of times in my standalone pieces, and can come from anywhere – whether that’s a line from a character, or something from outside your story that describes it (I’ve used poker phrases in a story where the game is a main plot point, and another that was inspired by a song had a snippet of that song’s lyric as the title). Don’t be afraid to cast your net wide, and play around until you find what works.
In summary – yes, a title might not be the first thing on your mind when you’re preparing your magnum opus. But it will be associated with it – and you – for years to come, so the least you can do is give it some love. If you do, it might just give you some back
What are some of your favourite (or least favourite) book titles? How do you title your stories? Let me know in the comments!