Jul 16 2008
This article gives nine tips to writing a title that grips readers and sells your book.
1. Tell us enough about the book to make us want to read it.This is what separates bland, forgettable titles like The Dragon from classics like His Majesty’s Dragon. The more we can surmise about the plot, the better.
2. Do not use imaginary place names.Readers haven’t heard of Asgardia, Lukawanda, or whatever your fictional kingdom or city is called.Your invented words won’t interest us because they don’t mean anything to us.I think the place names most appealing to prospective readers are those that use English words, like the Temple of Doom. We can guess what a temple of doom is.
3. Avoid character names.For example, I once saw a story named Ekwamedha’s Children. I have no idea who Ekwamedha is.Why should I care about him?A character’s name will be the weak point of the title, unless the name is so well-constructed that it has an immediate emotional impact.The only timeI can remember it actually working is Barbara Bloodbath. (I like the Harry Potter series as much as anyone, but I think the lackluster title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was one of the reasons it initially floundered).
4. If you refer to a character, we will learn more if you give us the character’s profession rather than just his name.Compare Ekwamedha’s Children (above) to The Chieftain’s Children.Giving us the profession means you can cut out an imaginary word from the title.It will also make it easier for readers to determine whether they are interested.
5. One-word titles are generally ineffective.Your readers are patient enough that they will easily make it through three or four words.By adding a few words, you can tell us more about the plot and come off as less cheesy and formulaic (like Trapped, Them!, and Prey).
6. If you use an [adjective] [noun] title, the adjective has to be unusual.Compare The Green Dragon or The Tough Barbarian to The Hudsucker Proxy or The Homicidal Toaster.
7. Do not use any acronyms that readers will not understand. As far as titles are concerned, acronyms are the most dangerous kind of imaginary word.
8. If possible, identify any element of your story that sells itself. It’s fairly cliché for stories to use high-selling words like dragon, vampire and magic in the title.Many readers will give your story a closer look if you advertise that it has a plot element they are fond of.Even though this is cliché, I recommend using it if you are writing to sell. But keep in mind that you still have to distinguish yourself from other vampire or dragon stories.
9. The title absolutely has to be written for the benefit of prospective readers. If your title only makes sense to readers after readers have finished the book, it’s a poor title. If your title doesn’t wow readers that are completely new to your work, no one will figure out how witty your title was because no one will actually read your book.
10. Contrasting elements are another way to spark the imaginations of readers.
- Would you rather read “King Arthur and Excalibur” or “Two Firemen and Excalibur”?
- “Saddam Hussein and Kuwait” or “Saddam Hussein and the Hippies from Space”?
- “How Cinderella Met Prince Charming” or “Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming“?
When you use unexpected elements together, it makes readers wonder more about how the story will tie them together. In contrast, if the elements of the title interact in boring ways, like King Arthur and Excalibur, then the story will probably sound boring.