Disclaimer: I am not the creator of any of the works mentioned in this guide, nor am I attempting to insult any of said works. Thank you.


The Sane Writer's Guide To: Titles

The First Thing

Not many people know this, but the title is one of the most important parts of any piece of writing. Why? Because the title is the first thing that your reader will see of your book. It's their first incentive to pick it up, and therefore their first incentive to buy or review it. Although titles may appear to be merely the names of books, they are actually the writer's first way to draw in readers.

Let's begin with a brief example. Say you're browsing a library shelf and see two books. Which one will you be most likely to pick up, The Green Dragon or Dragon On Speed Dial? Most readers would probably take the second one.

The title is the author's first chance to make an impression on the reader. Utilize it!

First, try to avoid single-word titles. Fewer words give the writer less opportunities to tell the reader what the story is about. For instance, take the titles Twilight by Stephanie Meyer and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. What do we know about the first book? What kind of story is it? Is a character named Twilight? Is "Twilight" a metaphor for an event in the book? What does "Twilight" mean to the reader? On the other hand, what sort of story is James and the Giant Peach? From the first glance, the reader knows this is most likely a fantasy story about a boy named James and a giant peach. The second title in this example gives the reader something to go on, and is therefore superior to the first.

Some other things to avoid are any imaginary place names or character names. For instance, Eragon, written by Christopher Paolini, not only breaks the single-word rule discussed above, it is also a name made up by the author. The only way that a reader could surmise anything about this novel is if they caught the "Eragon-is-"dragon"-with-an-"e"' detail, and even with this information the reader knows almost nothing about what the book will be like. Imaginary words also qualify, although they're usually less common.

Character names, actually, should be avoided as a whole. For instance, the book Coraline by Neil Gaiman takes its title from the main character herself. However, this tells the reader little about what kind of story Coraline is. Titles named after characters within the book tend to be generic, bland, and uninformative. Unless your character's name is extremely striking and just as memorable, don't use it.

Acronyms, unless they are for something that any reader would most likely know, are, to quote the writing website Superhero Nation, "the most dangerous kind of imaginary word". Obscure acronyms or acronyms created by the author will only confuse the reader. One acronym that might succeed if used in the title of a science fiction novel is AI for artificial intelligence, mainly since your target audience would probably be familiar with it. Unless your audience will get it immediately, don't do it!

Finally, there should be some words that should almost always be avoided when creating a title. Some are generic, some are overused, and some are just plain uninformative. Superhero Nation gives a comprehensive list:

Time. "...I've never seen a contemporary title effectively use "time." Unless time is a critical aspect of your story, it probably should not be in your title."

The word "time" has been used as a title in many different genres. In that manner it's extremely versatile, but overall it's a rather bland choice, title-wise. If you are going to use "time" as part of your title, make sure it's there for a legitimate reason. There are a lot of more original terms available for use, like "hourglass", or "sundial", that will reveal that time is a major part of the story.

Man/Person. "Generic nouns are usually vague, which makes them poorly-suited for a title."

This is one of the most generic terms used in titles, and therefore should be avoided. There are a lot of words out there that could serve as a substitute for "man" or "person", and a good amount of them are more informative, more distinctive, and more original. The Vampire and the Man is boring. The Vampire and the Accountant, on the other hand...

Story (and variations of story such as ballad, book, tale, etc.). "The word "story" insults the audience's intelligence. We can see it's a story."

Adding the word "story" or a variation of it tells us absolutely nothing about the plot of the novel. It's effectively a useless filler word and therefore a waste of time. The reader has no idea why they should care about The Story Of Jane. If it's not helpful, don't bother with it.

Song. "This is like "story," but even more aggravating."

If your book is literally about music or has music as one of its defining themes, then the word "song", if forgettable, is fine. Otherwise, it's the same as using "story". Like with "time" above, there are a lot of more original words that could be used to suggest a musical theme. "Chord" and "key" are some of the first ones which come to mind.

Heart. " This is usually a generic and ineffective way to suggest your story is emotionally driven."

"Heart", overall, is an overused word when it comes to titles. If you are attempting to stress emotional depth in your story, use something more unique. "Longing", "penchant"...almost anything other than "heart" would suffice.

Night/Black/Dark/Darkness. "These are typically used ineffectively to suggest that the story is dark and foreboding."

Ugh. Where to begin? There are a lot of better, more original ways to show that your story is not a fluffy romantic comedy. For instance, although it is currently tapdancing on the line between "overused" and "okay", Requiem, meaning "a song to honor the dead".

The above are just some of the terms that should be avoided in title-writing. Don't "settle" for a bland or mediocre title. Nine times out of ten there's something a lot better out there.

Now that I've outlined what bad titles are made of, let's get to the real purpose of this guide: how to create eye-catching titles.

Some of the best titles these days are what TV Tropes refers to as Double Meaning Titles. To quote them, double meaning titles are "titles with multiple meanings that all refer to the content of the work in different and independent ways." For instance, the Discworld novel Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett, refers to not only the genre of music, but the fact that the music in the book can actually invade souls. Another example is the Margaret Peterson Haddix book Running Out of Time, in which the heroine is not only running out of time to reveal the truth to the world, but is also literally running out of a different time period.

Now, how does one apply it to their own work? Say your novel is about a famous musician who, after one blunder after the other, is now nothing more than a has-been seeking to regain her fame. Over the course of the story, she becomes involved with an organization fighting against a villain who plans to destroy the universe by causing stars to fall...Why not call this story Fallen Star or Star Fall, to tie in with not only the villain's scheme but also with the heroine's "fall" from stardom? Just get creative with it and think of different ways to interpret the title.

Another way to create an interesting title is to use quotations, old sayings, and the like and reinterpret them. For instance, a book with the title A Date With Death or A Date With Destiny could be a supernatural/romance focusing on exactly that. Looking For Trouble could literally be about looking for trouble, be the main character searching for a character named Trouble, the godly personification of trouble, or anything going by such a name. Puns, double meanings, quintuple meanings...go for it. A writer can get some really interesting material in this manner.

Finally, there are the "money words". Although, as Superhero Nation states, "it's fairly cliché for stories to use high-selling words like dragon, vampire and magic in the title." Although this titling method is horribly overdone, readers interested in such might pick up your book to give it a closer look. Again, this technique is advised only as a last resort.

In the end, make sure your title is more than just a string of words. It's your first chance to make an impression and to get prospective readers to notice your work and take the effort to read it. The secret here is creating something a little different, a little out of the ordinary. Like with everything else, for some writers this is simple, while others may have to work a little harder. No matter what group, though, we all figure it out in the end.

Good luck to you.


Author's Note: As I always do, I'd like to thank all readers in advance for bothering to check this out. I wish you all luck.

Another installment of the Sane Writer's Guide, come and gone. They're getting easier.

Huh. Haven't got much to say this time. Ah well.

Thank you and drive safely. Review if you can.