Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What makes a good title?


When I saw what I'd scheduled to talk about today, I had a brief, inner-toddler moment of "Don't wanna!"

That's because titles are hard. And even if you work your butt (or your "boom-boom" as my 3-year-old inexplicably calls it) off at creating what you think is the perfect title, your publishing house might change it.

Why do so many titles get changed in the publishing process? The best theory I've heard on this is that a writer tends to pick a title that has meaning and sticking power only if you've read the story. I think that's definitely true for me and likely many other writers as well.

So does it matter what you call your book if there's a 50% chance your future publishing house is going to change it anyway? In short, yes. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder suggests that the title is part of the one-two punch of a great pitch, which includes your one-line. The title should "say what it is" but should say it cleverly. The example he gives of a great title is Legally Blond. He's right - it's a wonderful title. It says something about the tone, the story, the audience.

How do you come up with a great title? Brainstorming and trial and error.

My all-time favorite title is The Earth, my Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler. I read in an interview that it took her 2 years of reworking that title, and it's paid off big time. When I bought the book at Barnes and Noble, the clerk laugh and started flipping through it. When I've talked about it on here before, my mom asked if she could borrow it. It's a title that grabs you, makes you laugh, and makes you curious.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to test the titles you've come up with:

Is it unique?
Could it apply to only your book or many others? The title Love or Money could be applied to tons of stories, so it lacks uniqueness. The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) couldn't. It's a great title. Or Hunger Games could only apply to Suzanne Collin's book. Same with The Uglies by Scott Westerfield.

Does it say something about what the book is about?
A great way to test this is on Facebook. You can post, "If you saw this book title, what would you think it was about?"

Like The Pact by Jodi Picoult. I instantly think this is about some sort of grave agreement. (It is.) Or My Sister's Keeper also by Jodi Picoult. My first impression would be it's a story about sisters and one is in charge of the other. (Close enough.)

The Earth, my Butt, and Other Big Round Things. Weight, but done in a funny way. (True.)

The Other Boleyn Girl. My thoughts instantly go to, "It's not about Anne ... did she have a sister? What would life have been like as Anne Boleyn's sister?"

The Passion of Mary-Margaret by Lisa Samson. I think 3 things - sacrifice, religion, and Catholic. All correct.

Is it memorable?
We've all had titles we have a tough time remembering. I really enjoyed the movie In Good Company, which came out a couple years ago. But for the longest time, I could NOT remember what it was called. I was always saying to my husband, "It's just like in ... that movie we watched. With Topher Grace ... remember he becomes Dennis Quaid's boss..."

I'm also not a fan of "50-cent" words in titles. Those big complicated words can make it tough to remember and can also make the meaning unclear.

It's possible you've written a marvelous book, but if your title and your elevator pitch don't sell it, it'll hinder you when you're trying to get it in front of agents and editors.

One of the best ways to learn what makes a good title is simply noticing them and paying attention to what captures your attention and what doesn't. So let's share! I've given examples of some titles I think work well; what are some of your favorites?


  1. OOoooh; I love titles! I try and come up with ones that grab people and fit the book.
    Some of my current titles are:
    The Shadows Fall
    Tales of Matchwick Manor
    Angel of Death
    Among the Saints

    ~ Mirriam

  2. For as long as I can remember, I've kept a running list of phrases I'd like for titles. Yet whenever I start a new story, it's still a battle trying to name it, LOL. Especially since most of my books falls into the romance category, and romance titles have to sound . . . well, romantic. And yet I get so sick of the words "bride" and "heart" and "love." I got to take the easy way out by signing with Summerside for a Love Finds You book--no thought required on the title at all!

    Some of my favorite titles by others:

    The Guy I'm Not Dating
    The Silent Governess
    A Distant Melody
    Pieces of Silver (Especially love how this one sounds so pretty but also symbolized betrayal)

  3. Some of my favorite titles are:

    The Destiny of One
    For the Write Reason (perfect)
    I Will Follow
    One Thousand Gifts (makes me think bountiful, which is exactly what the book is about)
    The Door Within

  4. Thank you for this great post! I always have a hard time thinking of titles and this was exactly what I needed to hear! It inspired me to be bold with my titles...I'm definitely using the facebook idea. ;)

  5. I really like:

    A Sonnet to a Dead Countessa
    A Gown of Spanish Lace (instantly thinking, "Wedding")
    The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

  6. I like:
    - Dying to Win (play on words)
    - Toes (I just think its funny, its a book a read when I was little about a cat with extra toes! lol)
    - Bold Beauty

  7. I really like these ones:

    Black heart of Jamacia (set in the time when there were slave-trading)
    Fast food and no play make Jack a fat boy
    Hidden steel

    - Paige Taylor

  8. I like

    The Woman in White
    Tales from a perilous realm
    The Tanglewood's Secret

  9. I love making up character names and titles and all that. You know how they just come to you sometimes, and you don't even get to choose?:P

    I like the Real Life titles by Nancy Rue -- I mean, "Motercycles, sushi and one strange book." Or, "Boyfriends, Buritos and and ocean of trouble."

    1. I haven't read those 2 of the series, but the other 2 were great. Cool names too

  10. Ha! Paige this one made me laugh: Fast food and no play make Jack a fat boy

  11. Yeah, I read that one in year five :)
    I guess the title just grabbed me!


  12. Some good advice Stephanie.And a funny post too :)
    Sorry for taking so long to read it.I can be lazy about my bookmarks :(
    I like the following titles:
    Anything Nancy Rue or Bryan Davis
    Beyond All Measure
    Roadside Assistance
    The Truth About Forever
    What Happened to Goodbye
    Lock & key
    How To Ditch Your Fairy
    Asking For Trouble
    Anything Jenny B. Jones
    The False Princess
    The Iron Thorn
    Just One Wish
    Anything John Flanagan
    Anything Rick Riordan
    The Goddess Test
    My Unfair Godmother (#2)
    My Fair Godmother (#1)
    Faerie Path
    Higher Institute Of Villainous Education (and the other H.I.V.E. books)
    So yeah.A lot...........
    It'll be the hardest thing, I think to figure out my title.
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  13. Usually whenever I get an idea, instead of writing down what it was I come up with a title for the book it fits into.

    Have to say, the twilight books have the best titles, because they're all different stages of the moon.

  14. I am probably just putting this here cause I'm curious if somebody will actually notice a comment on such an old, dusty post, but anyway...

    I was wondering what you guys out there think about my current title. I'm thinking aboutt making it a dutch book but as the same principles apply here's my title's english translation: "Never sing stoned again".

    1. In English, it doesn't make sense, Pjotr. Unless you mean stoned like a person being on drugs...

  15. Here are some of the titles of my stories and/or novels. Please tell me if they look ok!
    The Price of Safety
    The Thirteenth Fairy & The 'Curse'

    1. The price of safety sounds like it would be about a people who trade their freedoms for security. Whispers sounds like it is about the dangers of gossip. What are they really about?

  16. What about coming up with titles for topics a lot of people write on these days--such as fairy tale retellings?

  17. These are some titles I like:
    The Reluctant Prophet(Nancy Rue)
    First Date, Starring Me, Right Where I Belong (Krista McGee)
    Me, Just Different (sounds pretty cool)

  18. Thanks for all the good advice! I've got two titles so far:
    When Angels Fall
    Finding Tomorrow
    Are they okay? Thanks again!