Aug 24 2007
This article will cover how to write novel titles that sell and when/how to name your chapters.
Most readers will look at two things before deciding whether to shelf your book: your title and your cover-art. Of these, you control only the title.
An effective title usually connects emotionally with readers (Heart of Darkness, Return of the King). Some may suggest an unusual premise or plot, like His Majesty’s Dragon. Others suggest an unusual reading experience, like Barbara Bloodbath or Saddam Hussein and the Hippies from Space.
Building Emotional Connections
If your title doesn’t affect your readers, they will put your book down. One way to come up with emotionally effective titles is to brainstorm a list of words that relate to your book–particularly, forceful and evocative nouns. For example, if you’re writing a book about a rebel, The Rebel would probably fail because it’s boring. What else is in your book? Let’s say the rebel’s personal growth is an important theme. The Rebel’s Growth doesn’t work either, so let’s try using a thesaurus. Growth is a synonym of rise, which is a synonym of ascension. The Rise of the Rebel and The Rebel’s Ascension are both better.
Slight changes to your title’s structure can hugely affect its emotional impact. For example, The Return of the King is a great title, but The Returning King is awful. The words are the same, but the rhythm and style have changed.
You can also try tweaking your word-choice. “Return” and “King” both have great, robust sounds and flair. By contrast, “Homecoming of the Monarch” is lousy. Even though the literal meaning is identical, the sound is off. In addition to the sound and style, word-choice can also affect the mood and feel of the title. For example, His Majesty’s Dragon is different than The King’s Dragon because HMD suggests that the dragons are like the British navy, His Majesty’s Ships. Just from the title, you can tell that HMD has historicity and realism (besides the dragons, obviously).
Some works, particularly sword-and-spell fantasies, make the substantial error of using a made-up word in the title. Nothing is less likely to emotionally affect a potential reader than a word he hasn’t seen before. Place-names are particularly weak. Character names are reasonably weak. As a rule, most character names are not strong enough to intrigue potential readers. (There are some exceptions, like Barbara Bloodbath).
Character names usually work better in chapter titles. By the time your readers are reading the chapter, they will have some emotional investment in the character. Something like “Paingod, Humanitarian” might intrigue you if you already knew that Paingod is humanitarian mainly as far as he’s not vegetarian. As a rule, character names that can interest prospective readers are typically a bit sinister and exotic (like Barbara Bloodbath, Paingod, Saddam Hussein, etc.) In contrast, names like Harry Potter are usually too boring to entice readers on their own. (In such cases, it’s usually best to add some other element, as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
Suggests an Unusual Premise
There are two especially strong reasons to use your title to suggest the premise or plot. One, your premise is so cool and fresh that it sells itself, like His Majesty’s Dragon. Two, your premise and/or reading experience are odd enough that you need to reach for a niche market, as in Saddam Hussein and the Hippies from Space. This sort of wacky title is more prevalent in children’s literature.
Arouses Curiosity/Makes Readers Want to Know More
This is another unconventional, risky approach. If your title makes your readers curious enough that they open the book, great. The key is giving them enough to wonder. So You Want to be a Honey Master works only if readers wonder what a Honey Master is. What about The King’s Death? Most readers probably won’t care who the King is or wonder why he died. Giving us more information might draw readers into the story. For example, The King’s Dead (but I Swear it was an Accident) is probably a winner.