I love a good title. So much so that I often find myself saying, “That would be a good title.” It’s a nerdy hobby, but I indulge without shame. In fact I have saved in an email folder several titles for stories I might one day write. (No free peeks. I guard that folder like a rabid leprechaun!)
What makes a good title is debatable, unless by good you mean attractive to a prospective audience. In that case, sales figures talk – after the fact. And bestsellers are where the money is. Where there’s money, there are readers. Bestsellers point the way.
I think what you’ll see is that, though there are no hard and fast rules, certain factors in a title help. I base much of what I am about to say on this wordplayer.com article by legendary Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. These factors are:
1. Length. Shorter is better. Fewer words and fewer syllables are easier to say, easier to recommend, easier to discuss and easier to remember.
2. Use of Mental Real Estate. If a word in a title connotes a plethora of memories and associations for readers, it is a powerful word because it leverages mental real estate. For more on this concept, see this other article at wordplayer.com.
3. Use of a Character’s Name. Names are magical. Harry Potter. Forrest Gump. Joey Pigza. Any words following a character’s name in a title essentially serve the purpose of a subtitle. So long as your character’s name is memorable and not too long, going this route is a good idea.
4. Cleverness. This could take the form of a pun, multiple meanings, an oxymoron, a pair of highly contrasting words… or another literary device.
5. Hint of Concept: It should ideally be clear from the title what the story will be about. The Outsiders? A group of people who do not feel accepted. Got it. I like the concept. I want to read that book.
6. Hint of Genre: A title is also more effective when a person browsing by title alone can easily guess the story’s genre.
7. Poetic Sound. This requires an ear for poetry. The title should roll off of the tongue. Alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme and meter are all factors to consider.
Before proceeding to the inspection of the bestsellers, I’d like to address one concern I believe many writers have. Some worry about “selling out.” To consider money in any form is to sell out, they think. I believe that while writing for money alone constitutes selling out, writing for a wide audience is a different story. To consider your market and how to make your story as appealing as possible to as many as possible is not mercenary. It’s human. Every writer, I submit, should aim for the stars – aka millions of readers. If you want to share something (your writing), share it with as many as you can. You have a story to tell! To aim for less seems to me either a form of elitism – “My writing is original; not everyone gets it” – or a self defense mechanism – “I wasn’t trying for a bestseller; it’s a niche audience I’m targeting.” Well, okay, maybe realistically you will only reach a niche audience, depending on your style and/or subject matter, BUT why would you want to limit yourself from the beginning?
Though books do not become bestsellers on the strength of their titles alone, it can be instructive to study the titles of those books that have risen to the top of the charts. So here follows a top five list of Young Adult titles now reigning at amazon.com. My list is altered in that I have deleted some titles. Instead of listing several books in a series, for example, I am listing only the first in the series. My rationale here is that sequels tend to sell only when the first in the series performed. If, for example, The Hunger Games had not charted, its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, would almost certainly not have done so. It’s a package deal. No need to mention all three; they rise and fall with the original. Other series have been similarly aggregated.
And here they are, along with the grade I give each title (based on title alone, regardless of content and writing quality):
1. The Hunger Games – 10/10. It’s short: three words (and “The” almost doesn’t count, especially when it’s the first word in the title), four syllables. It sounds dystopian (the genre) because of its pairing of something awful (hunger) with something sporting (games). This is a provocative juxtaposition that mirrors the striking concept it promises. The two g’s in the title provide consonance.
2. Divergent – 6/10. Three syllables. As much as I love the book, the title, I think, is lacking. First of all, the word is not in common parlance. This means that it will be more difficult to remember and it will not likely immediately resonate or suggest a story to prospective readers. Luckily, it’s a near form of “diverge,” and most everyone knows what that means. This is what saves it. Otherwise, the word is vague out of context, making it difficult to guess what genre and concept it is supposed to imply.
3. Reason to Breathe – 8/10. Three words, four syllables. Alliteration with the two long e sounds. Beginning with a strong, hopeful word: “reason”; ending with a strong word that suggests a previous struggle, a holding of the breath: “breathe.” The title accurately promises realistic fiction, but is this a swimming story? A medical struggles story? Or a metaphorical life-is-worth-living story? Beginning the title with the word “reason” is a bit awkward because a reader might stumble momentarily to ascertain whether this refers to the faculty of reason (thought) or to the meaning that provides a “why” – and is this first word a noun or a verb? It becomes obvious, but only after a moment’s ambiguity.
4. The Hobbit - 8/10. Two words, three syllables. This is essentially a title based off of a name. Tolkien coined the word “hobbit.” Its uniqueness and charm fulfills the attributive purpose of a name. It certainly sounds fantastical. We can guess that this will be a fantasy story. Beyond that, it is unclear what sort of concept is meant to be intimated.
5. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – 8/10. Four words, nine syllables – too long. This is its Achilles heel. The concept and genre are clearly defined by the title. And the cleverness of the concept is also evident, in the union of a beloved historical figure (Lincoln) with an incongruous genre idea (vampire hunter). We can anticipate horror, comedy and perhaps playful anachronisms. Note too the mental real estate invested in “Abraham Lincoln” and “vampire.” A menagerie of imagery and expectations is called to mind. We are nearly inspired merely by the title to write our own version of this story on the spot. That is great news for the author battling for readers.
What do you think? If you disagree with any of my critiques, please let me know in the comments. And I’d love to hear some of your favorite titles and why they have won your heart!
(Photo by: Matthew Allard)
I have never literally painted myself into a corner, although last summer I nearly stained myself into one while refinishing our deck. Figuratively, on the other hand, I have painted myself into a corner more than once. When my wife Julie and I bought our first home in 1996, when I was 25, the very adult burden of mortgage payments soon made me feel painted into a financial corner in that I sensed a near future of towering stacks of bills along with cribs full of babies (which we wanted) plus their costs (which we could do without).
The upshot of this pressure cooker situation is that I wanted to keep my home and family but shrug off my job in sales that was making me feel more trapped than the mortgage, the bills and the babies in the offing. Fifteen years later, after following a circuitous route through retail sales, copywriting, screenwriting, a home-based business, at-home fathering and now teaching, I’d say I made the right career decision. Yet the fact remains that painting one’s self into a corner means creating sticky situations that must somehow be gotten out of – often by paying a steep price.
In writing, sticky situations are inevitable. Writing a novel, a process requiring thousands, maybe millions of decisions – regarding word choice, sentence structure, plot, theme, character development and so on – is too complicated to allow for anything approximating perfection. If you whittle away at a story for more than a chapter or two, you will increasingly find yourself going the wrong way down one way streets, screaming toward dead ends and paddling your canoe into throttling, swampy byways – to mix a handful of metaphors for your supercilious reading pleasure.
Most writers with any experience maintain an uneasy intimacy with these dangers. It makes us skittish, gun shy. Every time we start a story or come to a crossroads in plotting, we second guess where a story or character choice might eventually lead us.
Please, ye gods of story, have mercy on me! Save me from painting myself into a story corner!
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.