Titles Are Hard—But These Tips Make Them Easier

I’m in the midst of a dilemma as I need to come up with a new title for a story. The story in question is one that’s been accepted for publication and the title change is at the request of the editor, so of course I’ll change it. I wasn’t wild about the title I had when I submitted it, but I did feel it fit, and now it’s grown on me, which makes the change more difficult.

The thing is, titles are hard. Sometimes good titles seem all but impossible. There are times when the “right” title seems obvious; it comes to you during the writing process, it fits the work on multiple levels, and it sounds good to boot. But those cases are probably fairly rare. Yet you know that when you’re trying to sell a story or novel, the title is your first bit of marketing that an agent or editor or reader is likely to see. So, you want to get it right.

On the other hand . . .

How important are titles, really? I’m thinking of my favorite books, and I’m finding a lot of titles that are fairly unremarkable, or at best are simply descriptive. Is that enough? Let me run through some titles here:

  • The Lord of the Rings—Sounds good, but basically is just descriptive, naming the main antagonist of the series; if you take the three titles that make up this trilogy, it’s not much better, and you might even decide those titles aren’t well suited to their individual books.
  • Boy's LIfe, Robert R. McCammonBoy’s Life—A fantastic book by Robert R. McCammon, which is about one year in a boy’s life; the title perhaps is appropriate because it’s told looking back on childhood, giving it a more universal quality—but “appropriate” isn’t the same as being a great title.
  • East of Eden—The title of Steinbeck’s novel is metaphorical, calling up the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which is played out in a variety of ways by the characters. Although I think this is an important book that everyone should read—certainly, every writer should read—I doubt the title itself would attract me to do so.
  • As I Lay Dying—This is a good, intriguing title, and it fits the content of the novel rather well. The title itself is taken from a line from Homer’s The Odyssey.
  • The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul—A good title, although it doesn’t necessarily have anything specific to do with this novel. Douglas Adams took the phrase from one of his other books, and if I remember correctly, it was in one of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series books, of which this is not one, making it even stranger to find as the title to this Dirk Gently novel.
  • The Stand—This title’s not bad for Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, although in some ways it seems too small, too constrictive to apply to all this novel does. Perhaps sometimes simple is best.
  • The Things They Carried—A good title for Tim O’Brien’s collection of interrelated stories, taken from one of the included stories, where it is both the title of that story and a phrase repeated throughout the story. Begs the question whether we need to look at titles differently for short stories than we do for novels.
  • Angle of Repose, Wallace StegnerThe Angle of Repose—To me, this is perhaps a perfect title. It’s intriguing in sound and idea, and it has both a metaphorical and actual relevance to the material. The metaphor of “the angle of repose,” finding a place to settle, applies both to the frame and the main story, which tells a historical tale of a cultured woman from the East trying to make it in the American West with her mining engineer husband during the late eighteenth century as they follow a variety of mining booms. It’s a fantastic novel from Wallace Stegner, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and which far too few people have read.

So, what does this random list of book titles uncover about the role of titles overall? And how can you use this information to approach naming your own works? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • Be Descriptive of the Work: Yes, think of it as a promotional tool, an advertisement to readers (or editors/agents), and it’s probably best to use something that actually describes the work itself—unless you’ve already hit best-seller status, in which case you can slap anything on there and it will still sell.
  • Be Intriguing: While being descriptive, try to spark the curiosity of potential readers. Think of a title as your first hook.
  • Consider Metaphor: Your book or story is about something other than just the plot (hopefully). Is there some metaphor or imagery that runs through the piece that might be massaged into a title (and still be descriptive and intriguing)?
  • Consider Interesting Turns of Phrase: Do you have language within your story that would make sense to pull as the title? This might be your metaphorical language, but doesn’t have to be; maybe it’s an action, or—well, who knows?
  • Consider External References: It’s not uncommon to take titles from literary sources, whether that’s classic novels, poetry, the Bible, Shakespeare, or many other well-known works. What about song lyrics? Famous speeches? What would make it appropriate for your title is if the quote or phrase has thematic relevance to your story; even better if it’s mentioned or in some way referenced in your work.
  • Make It Sound Good: Think about sounds and rhythm and how they might work with the story. Of course, what sounds good will be largely a matter of opinion and what you believe sounds right could be overruled.

Since I began writing this post several days ago, I’ve already agonized over my story that began these title musings and come up with a new title for it. I tried many different titles before coming to one I liked, and in review, I find I went through many, though not all, of the possibilities I suggest here. One other aspect I considered was that I wanted readers coming to the story to have a specific feeling about what type of story it is from the start: It’s a noir-ish detective story, and I wanted that telegraphed by the title—which I suppose might come under the “be descriptive” header.

I’m sure there are many other approaches to developing titles. And I’m sure there are many other great (or awful) titles that we could learn something from. Let me know what works for you. Or what lessons you’ve learned from examining other titles. And what about the novel versus short story: Do you feel there’s a difference in how to approach naming them? All good discussion is welcome!

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

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3 thoughts on “Titles Are Hard—But These Tips Make Them Easier

  1. c2london

    I do think think there is a difference between short stories and novels. For one, I don’t think the editors of places publishing short stories ask to have them changed that often, at least I don’t remember ever being asked to reconsider a title.(Maybe the highly literary ones do; I wouldn’t know about that.) It could be different in an anthology since many might use something related to the theme of the anthology in the title and with many together they may sound too similar. Also, it seems like novel titles need to suggest a bit about genre while short stories are usually either published in a genre journal/site so you don’t have to be as selective.

    With novels, the title might entice an agent/editor, but I was under the impression that it was often changed anyway. I do agree some titles can be a draw to at least pick up a book, but I don’t know how often I read a book just for the title. I mean, I posted on FB the other day that I really thought the title I Used To Be An Animal, But I’m All Right Now is hilarious, but I doubt I’ll seek out and read the book.

    We just watched a boy called Boy. We had it in our queue for quite some time. The title is odd and reminds me of other movies/books. The picture wasn’t that interesting, either, but when we watched it, it was quite good. Maybe, for me, the title is part of the gestalt of the cover, so I have to like the interplay of the picture and the title.

    Great discussion topic, though. Hope others discuss.

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    1. bkwins Post author

      Seems to me with books the title is overall less important because you have the book cover to attract attention–although that doesn’t apply when you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher or agent. For me, I think it’s harder and more important to get a good title for a short story because it’s a larger part of the sales pitch for the piece, effectively.

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  2. c2london

    Well, proportionally (by word count) I probably spend more time on a short story title than on a novel title. I think it might be easier to come up with a good short story title since it is easier to look over the story again and again to find the title than to reread a whole novel to find a title imbedded in the prose. When critiquing, we should probably underline, star, or in some other way indicate phrases we think might make good titles while reading both novels and short stories, just in case the author wants to change the title, or doesn’t indicate a title.

    I know with some stories the title is right there and I use the same one from day one, while other times I change constantly. And I pretty much refer to novel manuscripts by the name of the MC, even when I have a working title. This does, though, mean none of my males can ever be the main character since they are always named Gordon.

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