Finding a Good Title

A title sweet as a nut..
Finding a title sweet as a nut..

I should subtitle that at once: when good titles don’t find you! Because that’s the heart of the matter.

There are two main ways good book titles come about:

1. We have a plodding workaday title attached to our manuscript, a title we know instinctively—or are told!–will have to be changed.
2. The title comes fresh-faced, newly-minted, manifesting of its own sweet accord in the mind of the writer, right from the start.

The second variety is usually a blessing, because it acts like a trigger to the writing process, infusing inspiration and atmosphere pretty much immediately. I say usually because occasionally the beautiful title is like a firework, blooming in imagination’s sky for an instant with bright blossoms of stars, only to die away and turn dark once more. That makes for a false start, and one that can be hard to recover from, if the title has stuck in your head like a plaintive tune you can’t get rid of. But usually, as I say, the second variety is a gift.

I think of some of the titles that came to me like that, which miraculously brought into being immediately the first draft of a new story-world. And what I notice, when I look at such titles–for example, that of my forthcoming novel Scarlet in the Snow, whose alliterative harmony came fully-formed to me one long winter’s train journey back to my highlands home from Sydney–is that very often those titles have alighted on stories that mix magic and reality. Again and again I’ve had that experience: novels that are inspired by fairytale, myth, legend or folk belief often seem to call out the Muse of Titles much more successfully than novels set entirely in the everyday world. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and I can certainly point to some ‘realistic’ novels that came fully named with great titles that felt right at once, and maybe two or three fantastical novels that had to have their titles changed, mostly for the better, though in at least one example I can think of, 1992’s A Blaze of Summer—originally titled The Glade of the Wolf–this was something I agreed to reluctantly—and I still think did the book no favours. But I was a fairly new author at the time, and not sure of my ground. Things have changed!

Anyway—no hard and fast rules, but a definite trend. For me, magical worlds call out magical titles—or the reverse. And there’s no formula for that I can come up with! It just happens. But some titles I’ve had to work much harder for, in order to coax them out from behind the bland, misdirected, or flat monikers that were all I could think of at the time. It helped, by the way, to know that writers have always struggled with this process. Just consider what some classic novels were called before their authors reconsidered (or their publishers threw up their hands in horror!)

First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice)

The Dead Un-Dead (Dracula)

Tomorrow is Another Day (Gone with the Wind)

Strangers from Within (Lord of the Flies)

And in what can only be seen as the supreme misnomer, All’s Well that Ends Well (War and Peace!).

For me, as no doubt for many writers, it’s not just a case of enjoyable head-shaking “what can they have been thinking” that is the point of these examples; it’s knowing that even the greats struggled with bestowing the perfect name on their literary offspring. And I don’t know about you, but that’s mighty encouraging!

Anyway, to start you off on your own tips, here’s some of what I’ve learned over years of trying to choose the right title–sometimes racking my brains all by myself, sometimes happily picking those of relatives, friends and editors!

  • Don’t be afraid of utter simplicity. For instance my prize-winning novel The Hunt for Ned Kelly had originally been called Dark and Bright, which is how Ned described himself in something he wrote. “Too obscure,” said my publisher, and suggested I use The Hunt for Ned Kelly. which I’d put as a kind of introductory, explanatory line on the first page. It worked brilliantly! Partly because its very simplicity is memorable; partly because people know exactly what the book’s about.
  • Contrariwise, don’t be afraid of being a little more complex, or poetic, or mysterious. Fire in the Sky became the new title for my first children’s novel, which had originally been titled The Witch of Devil’s Mountain. A Fearful Thing (from a line in a poem about death) became Sooner or Later, which kept the same idea but had less of the ghost-story implication about it (there are no ghosts in the novel!) while The Lost Island became, wait for it, The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare!
  • The book’s theme or atmosphere can yield useful ideas for titles, but so can characters. For instance, The Troublemaker, about a difficult but endearing kid, is what the main character thinks of that kid—before modifying their mind later. That novel laboured under the nameless burden of ‘Latest Novel’ in my files for quite a while, until finally it clicked.
  • Settings can also provide useful ideas. Prodigal morphed into The House in the Rainforest, instantly acquiring glamour and the humming of cicadas; The Bronze Mirror became Red City, and clothed itself with intrigue.

So–what are your tips for finding the perfect title? And, for a bit of fun—what imperfect alternative title can you come up with for a famous book?

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. Sevgne says

    I’m hopeless at titles. I envy people who are good at finding them. I remember reading that the playwright Lanford Wilson couldn’t begin writing without a title (I’m not sure if this is true). I’ve gone through several names for my current story. I found your article helpful in centering my thoughts because I do find myself worrying that if I don’t come up with a great title, and if I’m lucky enough to find a publisher willing to buy the story, it will end up with a name I don’t like. (There! I’ve named it…one of my big fears. And I haven’t even finished the story. :) )

    I particularly like what you said about not being afraid of having a complex title. I was in a workshop last year and ran a couple of my titles by the workshop leaders. I was told that for YA I should keep the title short, like The Hunger Games, or (some other very popular book at the time). That kids don’t like complicated titles. I didn’t agree, but I also had no evidence to support my disagreement. Apart from the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which wasn’t for teens, though the series grew into YA.

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  2. says

    One thing I make a point to consider when creating a title as a self-published author is finding a title that will come up easily in a web search. Although I love simple one and two word titles, poetic titles are more likely to be complex enough to be on the top of the list in a web search. My first book is “A Train Called Forgiveness.” My second, that comes out next week, is “At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy.” Both come up on top in a web search. Now the challenge is getting those titles to larger publics.

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  3. says

    Or you figure out the perfect title, only to Google it and discover someone else has used it recently. Maybe that doesn’t confuse anybody else, but I remember when Geraldine Brooks’s March came out about the same time as E. L. Doctorow’s The March…both set during the Civil War!

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  4. says

    Ah, titles! The GWTW previous title fiasco (can you imagine Tomorrow is Another Day on a movie marquee?) is my favorite.

    I like the Bible for titles – or inspiration – because there are many parts which resonate even for non-religious people.

    A little tweaking – and voila, the perfect title – and it comes with built-in resonance.

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  5. says

    I had titled my picture book “The Single Best Mom in the World.” After debates at the publishers with editors and marketing, they came back with “The Best Single Mom in the World.” ;)

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  6. says

    I’m drawn by titles and good headlines (and will have to check out The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare; love the play on Tempest and Shakespeare), and I usually have a working title, but many times change it by the very end.

    Hmmm…tips? A repeated phrase (or maybe only said once—depends), a two-word synopsis (if possible), A quirky character…no real plan…it just happens.

    Fun post!

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  7. says

    For most of my stories I have written or created blueprints for, titles have come naturally. I tend to pick poetic titles–ones that are not straightforward. However, in one or two of my stories, I’ve questioned whether I chose the title that would best represent the book. I like the tips you mentioned, as well as the example of well known stories. I will surely be considering what you said for my upcoming stories and even the ones I have completed but not yet published.

    Thanks for this helpful article!

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  8. says

    I write short stories, and I find it very difficult to persevere with an idea without a title. I read somewhere that Robert Aickman, the master of the strange tale, could not even begin writing without one. To me it sets the tone for the whole project, setting me off on the right track; although I can see it may be different for a novel. Fascinating post.

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  9. says

    I almost always have to go with the first type of title. I can never really get into a story until it has a title, but I find them hard to come up with.

    The title of my first book, Locked Within, came from the lyrics of a song, Locked Within the Crystal Ball, and featured the line “Mysteries surround us, legends never die,” which I thought was fitting for a book about reincarnation.

    The second, Silent Oath, came from a line at the end of the first, and originally I thought it wasn’t going to work and changed it, but my publisher loved it and it became the final title.

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  10. says

    I tend to be a little TOO good at titles. I have a couple great ones right now . . . books to match yet to be written!

    Terrific (and oft-neglected) topic.

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  11. Ethan White says

    Ah, this post spoke to me so well. I’ve been having a real problem with the titles for the book I’m currently writing, a historical fantasy involving some Irish mythology based crow-people. I swear, I’ve been changing the title every two weeks. Given that one of the key plot items is a diary, I thought I found a perfect name when I dreamt up ‘The Book of Crows’. Very next day on a routine research trip around the book stores, I catch sight of a book with the very same title. As interesting as the blurb was, I still haven’t picked it up out of spite. I need a title muse.

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  12. says

    I always try to think of the title as the theme of the book, something that represents what is being fought for.

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