Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’re reading this article, the title has done its job. It piqued your interest and made you want to find out more, which is precisely how you want people to react to the title of your book. Thus, you must word your title as carefully as you would the first sentence of the first chapter.
When you wander around a bookshop, you will see numerous ways of titling books. For example, a line—People of the Book—that plays like poetry in the mind. Or one simple word—Outlander—that will, you hope, change from “What does that mean?” to a term that carries so much meaning and so many images to those who choose to open the cover and start reading.
Not only do you want the title to draw attention, but you want it to cause a reaction—a prospective reader reaching out, picking up the book, reading the back and carrying it to the till. It’s the invitation to form a connection with your story.
Your title is the lure on the fishing line—best make sure it catches the light.
A glimpse into your world
Of course, the tone of the title must fit the tone of your book. The title needs to be a snapshot of the scenes that await the reader inside.
Meg Cabot’s Size 12 Is Not Fat is most certainly not a tragedy, Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem is certainly not a light-hearted frolic through the daisies. Like the book blurb, don’t disguise your story as something it isn’t. This just puts a reader off if they’re browsing the shelves for something of a particular genre.
There is, however, nothing wrong with a little ambiguity. The Monsters of Templeton, for instance, at first glance could be a horror story. The title is intriguing enough for someone to read the back of the book and find out what those monsters are.
A literary device or two
Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Burning Blue.
A little alliteration makes an impression, doesn’t it? Don’t be afraid to flex those poetic muscles. A haunting book title does just what it says on the tin by staying in the mind, naturally encouraging a reader to want to know more.
It doesn’t have to rhyme or be littered with alliteration (like what I did there?)—but the lyricism of a line can be just as haunting. Think To Kill a Mockingbird, Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Painted Veil. These are “beautiful” titles and they hold great promise of what is within the covers.
Perhaps if you find there is a line within your story that you find particularly haunting and particularly evocative of the novel as a whole, you might use this as the title?
The importance of “the”
It is one of the most basic words in the English language and yet it has the power to change another very unassuming word, such as “historian”, into a statement—The Historian. It is a statement, it has authority and power, and it is also a question that wants answering. Browsers in a bookshop will think, “and just who is this historian?” and pick up the book for a closer look.
Of course, this magical little word has the same effect on a phrase. Which would you find more intriguing—“A Ship of Brides” or The Ship of Brides? Certainly the latter—what is so special about “a ship” amongst many?
It might be a small, well used word, but it is rather powerful. Use it wisely.
What’s in a name?
How many books can you think of where the main character is mentioned in the title, or is the whole title? David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Matilda, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, Harry Potter and…, Emma. There are so many examples.
This is a simple but effective device—right from the very beginning you are telling the reader who the most important person is, who’s story it is and you have already given them someone to care about. (Although I confess, I found Emma quite difficult to care about, aside from wanting to slap her.)
It also makes remembering the title at a later stage much easier—“that book about the dude with the painting…Dorian someone or other.”
Using the main character in the title is a bold statement—“you will care about this person and you will find him interesting”—but if you’re confident in your main character, this is something to consider.
Shorter is better…
Sometimes. Your intention is undoubtedly to think of a title that will be memorable; a title that is easy to recall over dinner when recommending a fabulous book to a friend. Theoretically then, shorter is better.
There are, however, no set rules.
One of the books I have enjoyed tremendously quite recently is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I’d wager that wouldn’t trip lightly off the tongue after two glasses of wine with the coq au vin. More likely, “it’s got a strange title, quite long, and something about potatoes and pies and books.” Whilst the recollection of the wording is vague, the peculiarity of the title itself is lodged in the brain—it has made an impression.
You may think you have come up with the perfect book title, but as the book progresses, a voice in your head might quietly suggest that it doesn’t really fit anymore. I encourage listening to that voice.
Be flexible about finding the right title to suit the story. What started out as a romance might well have ended up as a gruesome murder and that brilliant title you thought of at the beginning simply gives the wrong impression of what the pages hold.
Everything going according to plan, you want this first impression of your book to be discussed for years to come, by strangers all over the world. Make sure it is the best impression possible.
What book titles have made you pick up a book you may not have considered otherwise? Please share them in the comments below.