Sep 20 2008

How specific should a novel’s title be?

Published by at 1:57 am under Titles,Writing Articles

An e-mailer asks:

When you guys review titles, you frequently suggest that the title go farther to distinguish itself from other books with a similar setting.  For example, you said that the manuscript Questor failed to distinguish itself from other Roman stories, but how many Roman stories are there?  Why would you need to distinguish yourself within such a small subset of books?

Thanks for your e-mail, Giuseppe.  Questor’s title failed to distinguish its premise.  The setting is uncommon, but what happens in the book?  What is the hero trying to accomplish in ancient Rome?  Generally, the best titles identify the book’s premise.

  • His Majesty’s Dragon (“what if the war against Napoleon was fought with dragons?”)
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible: (“what if we told a superhero story mostly from the supervillain’s perspective?”)

Some other titles neglect the premise and focus on the subgenre and setting.  That may be sufficient, but it’s generally not as impressive.

  • Superhero Nation.  The title suggests it’s a superhero story set in the real world, but you’d have to look at the book cover to know that the book is mainly about an unlikely police officer and his non-human partner.
  • Questor.  It’s a story set in ancient Rome, but that’s just the setting.  What is the premise?  What happens?  What is the hero attempting to accomplish? My guess is that the setting isn’t interesting enough to sell the book on its own.

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