Let’s talk titles! Book titles, story titles, blog post titles, whatever. Titles are a tricky thing. Like names, you know when you’ve got the right one but you can’t really say why. Or can you? I’ve recently encountered some stunningly brilliant book titles (and some really terrible ones) and I’ve got some ideas regarding what every title should have.
I’m not talking about the obvious–it should be engaging, witty, and memorable. It should also be easy to spell, if that’s possible, but not necessarily required if it meets the previous three. But none of that actually helps when you have a newborn babe and nothing to call it.
Trying to help someone understand what should go into a title is kind of like trying to explain what makes a mountain to someone who’s only ever seen speed bumps and curbs. Most authors get as far as finding a molehill and decide that’s as good as it’s going to get. A few precious more make it to the foothills. Only rarely does anyone actually find the true mountain of Naming.
Oddly enough, skill in naming has nothing whatsoever to do with the skill of the author. Some really awesome authors with horrible naming skills are Ted Dekker and Jim Butcher. Seriously, Jim Butcher’s titles are so bad that we’re going to make fun of them a little further down. But first we’re going to talk about some really awesome titles and try to figure out what makes them so.
1. Before They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
This honestly rates as the #1 title ever invented by anyone. It’s what sparked my whole theory about what makes a truly good title. The reason “Before They Are Hanged” jumped out at me and refused to let go is just how many questions it raises! Never mind back cover copy or nice covers…I was sold completely by the title. Before who are hanged? Before they are hanged for what? What must be done before then? What happens if it isn’t? If they succeed, will they not be hanged? INQUIRING MINDS MUST KNOW.
2. Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
This is an oldie, but a goodie, from many years back. If it were a non-fiction book or just an imaginarium of types we would just gloss over but as a fiction book cover we’re instantly sucked in. Fantasy or history? The title is an old cartographers phrase, but in the modern world we all know that dragons no longer exist. So is it about dragons? Or maps? Or both? Where are there dragons? Are they friendly dragons? And so we pick up the book.
3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed with the title of this book when I first picked it up, but once I started reading and saw what else it could have been called I just became very glad it wasn’t called “The Chandrian” or something equally meaningless.
So now that we have some really good titles, what are some examples of bad ones? I’m so glad you asked.
Seriously, that’s such a lame book title it’s like he didn’t even try. Fortunately, because it’s Jim Butcher, nobody cares, and because it’s a series we’d all read it even if it were only titled Book 12. Honestly, though, “The Dresden Files: Book 12” is a better title because then the title provides useful information instead of an overall view of the plot. What makes it worse is that the plot lends itself to really cool titles like “Sins of the Fathers” or “Blood Rites.” Much more interesting!
2. Blink by Ted Dekker
Dekker loves one word titles. And he usually picks really unusual words like “Infidel” so he can get away with it. But this one kind of missed the mark. It wants to be compelling, but it’s really not. And when you read the book you find that the title didn’t represent it at all. It’s functional, but not brilliant. Not the way “The Priest’s Graveyard” is brilliant.
Now we come to the part where we talk about what we’ve learned today!
1. Be very careful when using one word titles. While one-word titles are in no way taboo, they might not be the best way to convey the heart and soul of your story. While “Shattered” is an excellent title for a thriller novel that contains glass as a key element with a sub-plot about broken people, it’s a less likely choice when your novel is about a hero finding his destiny in reforging a broken sword.
2. Avoid made-up words, especially when overly long and complicated. This is why you discover that most fantasy series include their world’s name in the series title, rather than the actual book title. While “The Hero of Shikaya” might be a perfectly legitimate title it, in fact, only makes sense to someone who already knows what Shikaya is. You’re trying to draw in new readers, so try to choose a title that doesn’t assume previous knowledge.
3. Avoid boring titles. Flee boring. Embrace the intriguing. Make a list of titles and randomly say them at people you know. If the response is a snore, then cross that one out.
4. Ask questions. The best titles are catchy, and force the reader to ask questions about what they imply. Good titles are riddles wrapped inside of clever wording. If you’re having trouble with a title ask yourself: “What do I want people to wonder about this book?” Then try to come up with a title that forces people to ask those questions.
5. Withhold information. If the entire plot of your book is summed up in the title then no one is going to pick it up. If the title of your book is: “Time Travelling Ninjas Visit the Dinosaur Age” then, guess what? We already know the vast majority of the plot. Some people might still read it because who can resist Ninjas? But “Ninjas at the Dawn of Time” might be a better, more intriguing title. (Although still a little spoilery, unless this is a series and you already know that the ninjas travel through time.) Some exceptions to this are in parodies and satire, such as the comedy/horror novel: “John Dies At the End.”
And that’s about it! There are the five rules you need to follow to come up with a brilliant, eye-catching title. Of course, breaking rules is always allowable if you have a good reason, but you should make sure doing so is really in your best interests, and be twice as careful when using it. If you really want to use a made-up elemental compound in your title that’s five syllables long and doesn’t appear in auto-correct go ahead–as long as you’re sure you don’t mind when everybody misspells it for perpetuity.
What are some examples of exceptional titles you’ve come across? What are your own “golden rules” when it comes to choosing a title? Do you think any of these “rules” are incorrect or incomplete?