How to write effective book titles

How to title a book is an important decision. It can mean the difference between obscurity and a first step toward sales and recognition.

Jim Morrison - book titles

Picture by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

How to title a book? What are the characteristics titles should possess? And why should we try hard to come up with intriguing ones?

Well, I could point out that the Gospel of John starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

After that, I could go on and quote Dan Simmons “In the beginning was the Word. Then came the fucking word processor. Then came the thought processor. Then came the death of literature. And so it goes.”

Not bad. With just two quotes we can go from mysterious revelation to death, even if only of literature.

This little bit of experimenting is just to show how ductile and powerful a few words can be. And consequently, how enticing, how evocative a title can be.

In fact, at the end of the day a title must get the reader’s attention in a sea of many other competing titles. And it must make it clear what your book is about, what there is in it for the reader.

Though difficult, this is an attainable goal. It only requires a bit of attention to some basic principles.

Be wary of one-word titles

The reason for this is simple. With one lonely word you can convey only a vague sense of what your story is really about. Of course, this vagueness could draw some inquisitive readers in. But one-word book titles are probably a bit too vague and tend to put potential readers off more often than not.

boat beach

Don’t bog your titles down with unnecessary words – picture from unsplash.com

Besides, even if one-word book titles are easy to remember, when someone looks for your book on the Internet, they’re going to come up with thousands of results. Results that have nothing to do with your book.

This is no good. You strive to get noticed and when someone finally looks your title up they’re overwhelmed by a tsunami of identically titled books.

To be honest, if you have a look at the best sellers list on Amazon, you can find several one-word titles. And I myself did use a one-word title for my first horror novel, Ruin.

However, the more I think about it, the more I want to change it. Ruin is really too vague a word and I’m afraid the cover doesn’t help to make its meaning any clearer either.

Be even more wary of very long book titles

First of all, long titles can be difficult to remember. Besides, if readers are already exhausted after having read the title, they are unlikely to still have the energy to click the fabled buy-now button.

All kidding aside, it’s also worth noting that a long book title would gobble down every other graphic aspect of the book cover. In some cases it might be possible to turn the title itself into the main graphic subject of the cover. But be aware that this is not a feat easy to pull successfully off.

Specific

Adams, the founder of the Dunn Daily Record —one of the most successful newspapers in the country— says his strategy can be boiled down to three things: names, names, and names. What he means is that every day he demands that his staff feature as many people from Dunn as possible.

Names, names, and names. This kind of approach is useful also in creative writing. In fact focusing on names, on concreteness, helps readers to better “see” what you are writing about. And titles are no exception.

For example:

The Thief of Children – concrete version

The demise of Innocence – abstract version

However, sometimes it can be desirable to add an element of vagueness. For example, to hint to a mystery.

The thief of innocence – one concrete and one abstract name

Original

Being original is the most difficult feat in the world. I mean, if your idea is good, you can bet tens of people already had it. Instead, if your idea is damn brilliant, you can bet thousands of people already had it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it quite neatly: “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”

So don’t waste too much time to come up with something unique. Rather, look around to find things that speak to your soul, and use them in your own personal way. More than at originality you should aim at authenticity.

In any case, don’t worry too much. As you can see in this article, many great writers were not so great when it came to titles.

Break schemas

For sure unexpectedness is a powerful way to boost you titles. You can use juxtaposition, parallelism, climaxing lists. You can use pretty much any device you feel like.

Going from general to specific, with a final twist:

The war
The first war
The first android war

A love story can end, and a horror story can follow in its steps:

I loved you
Burning hot
Voodoo, babe

Science fiction and the fusion of two distant ideas:

The forest
Green brain
Leaf Neurons

An unsatisfied wife and her escalation from toys to lovers:

The secret lover
Rubber is not enough
From rubber to Mr. Robert

These are just examples I wrote down over the past five minutes. They are most likely still a long way from greatness. But, I hope, they offer at least an idea of what I mean.

Match the character of the book

You can use any technique you want to. You can flout any rule and yet come up with a more than appropriate title. As always, rules can be bent and broken if you know how to do that.

However, a title should always match the character of  the book.

I mean, if you’ve written a book whose atmosphere is dark and menacing and whose protagonist is paranoid about his wife’s fidelity, then it’s definitively not a good idea to title it From rubber to Mr. Robert.

Cognitive dissonance is a device we can exploit in our story. Not before it even begins.

The truth about intriguing book titles

Did you ever notice? While you can find legions of experts telling you about how to create a professional cover for your books, there are a lot fewer people willing to teach you how to come up with great titles for your novels.

I suspect that one reason has to do with the fact that while most writers have to ask someone else to create a decent cover, the opposite is true for book titles.

Indeed, to me it seem difficult to come up with a paid course on how to tile a book. After all, writers write hundreds of sentences every day. And at the end of the day a title is nothing else than a sentence. A very well polished and special one. But still a sentence. In many cases the real incipit of a story.

I suspect that informative material on the subject is scarce also because, while almost everyone can tell the difference between an amateurish cover and a professional one, with book titles this is not the case.

After all, coming up with some interesting three-word titles isn’t as nearly as difficult as designing a professional-looking cover. Or is it?

In any case, I came across an interesting book about how to make your ideas more sticky. I found it a treasure trove of suggestions, and I think that at the very least it could prove useful to help you come up with more memorable book titles.

The book is Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Check it out if you feel like, and drop a line to share your thoughts on the art of coming up with intriguing book titles.


Picture 1 by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann (CC License) – Picture 2 by Fazel Gomar via unsplash (Licence)

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  1. Pingback: How to write a blurb for your book - Peter Rey

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