A good title meant everything in eighteenth century England, where the fate of would-be lovers often depended upon whether the gentleman was a duke or a baron. For the fiction writer of the twenty-first century, a good title of a different sort is just as essential.
Unfortunately, too many aspiring writers spend years perfecting their manuscripts—and then tack on uninspired titles as afterthoughts. I encounter this casual approach to titling in my own fiction workshops, where talented students undermine first-rate stories with second-rate names. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest pitfalls for the emerging writer to avoid. I urge my students to think of their titles as their first opportunity to stand out in the slush pile. After all, while we are told not to judge a book by its cover, when confronted with thousands of submissions, what editor won’t be drawn to a clever or alluring title? Devoting even a small amount of creative energy to naming your work can vastly improve your odds of publication.
My rule of thumb is that strong titles are distinctive, but not distracting. While Chekhov could afford to tack dull titles onto vivid stories—such as “Home” or “The Student”—modern audiences want something more memorable. At the same time, anything as complex as “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” may draw attention to itself at the expense of the story that follows. The trick is to find a happy middle ground between the all-too-forgettable and the truly over-the-top. You want to choose a name that makes your readers think: What a fantastic title! Why didn’t I think of that?
Here are additional tips for naming your manuscript:
Great Titles Have Two Meanings
Most readers consider your title twice—once before they start reading your work and a second time after they have finished. Many successful titles gain additional meaning as they’re read, so that they pack an additional punch when reflected upon them for the second time. Noteworthy examples include Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”
Don’t Forget Voice & Point of View
Every fiction writer knows that strong prose requires a distinctive voice and a consistent point of view. Far too many writers forget that a title should also have these characteristics—and that they should match those of the story or novel. If you are narrating a story in the 3rd person, do not call it “My Summer Vacation.” On the other hand, if your story is told from an unusual vantage point, you can use the title to announce this fact to the reader. Robert Olen Butler, for example, uses his title for exactly this purpose in the modern classic, “Jealous Husband Returns In Form of Parrot.”
Perform a Google Test
The easiest way to ensure you have an original title is to type the phrase you have chosen into an Internet search engine. Some great titles will produce matches, of course—but if you are the first person ever to coin the phrase you’ve chosen, then you know you have hit the “originality jackpot.” (While titles are not copyrightable, and in theory you could name your novel Gone With the Wind, doing so is unlikely to help your career.)
Maximize Your Choices
I tell my students to approach naming a story as they do seeking a mate: While some people meet their perfect partner during their teenage years and live happily ever after, the vast majority of us have to date lots of people before we find what we’re looking for. The same holds true for choosing a title. I suggest making a list of at least five different titles before deciding upon one. I also think there is much to be said for asking friends and family which of these potential titles they prefer.
Include Precise Nouns and Active Verbs
Computer programmers have tried for years to create the perfect algorithm for naming a book—for example, claiming that three-word titles sell best or insisting that the most marketable titles contain verbs. If this approach actually worked, of course, these programmers would be publishing moguls. A simpler technique is to select precise nouns and strong, active verbs. Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is far more compelling than Love Under the Trees.
Avoid Subverting Your Plot With Your Title.
If you’re writing a mystery novel, or a suspense thriller, make sure you don’t give away the ending on the title page. I also strongly discourage my students from using either the first or last lines of their stories as their titles, as such “double duty” takes away the surprise of the opening hook or the dramatic conclusion.
Make Certain That Your Title Matches Your Story
This is the most important rule of titling, probably the only one that no writer can afford to break. Often we start off with a promising title in mind for our work—and assume, once we have finished writing, that this title still fits. Unfortunately, the human imagination does not always conform to our expectations, so it’s essential to ask yourself, once your manuscript is complete, whether the title you started out with still matches the story you’ve told.
Although these tips may make titling sound stressful, the process should actually be highly enjoyable. After all, any writer who has completed a story or novel realizes that titles serve one additional purpose that primarily benefits the author: Typing the title onto your manuscript is a way of patting yourself on the back and taking pride in a job well done.
This article originally appeared in Writer’s Digest.