If writing a novel is like having a baby, then titling it is like naming your kid.
And parents fret over the names of their children. Big time. Have you seen the sheer number and size of baby name books these days? Not to mention the power of a tool like my beloved BehindTheName.com — if titles are baby names, then a quick manual on how to title a work might come in handy.
Today I want fill your titular arsenal with multiple arms that will level up the caliber of your titles. Then I hope to encourage you to arm yourself with several of them going into the final phases of publication. With a handful of solid titles ready, you’ll never get shamed over an editor’s lack of choices:
Thematic Quote — The most common practice you’ll encounter is authors who title their books using loose references to the works of other authors. Call it due deference, if you’d like, but sometimes you get the impression that an author simply liked the quote and has yet to read the work from which they derived the quote. The Sound and the Fury, And the Mountains Echoed, and Leviathan Wakes all use this. To do it yourself, call to mind your major theme, check The Oxford Book of Quotes, Goodreads, or The Dictionary of Anecdotes for quotes related to that theme, pare down the quote, and you’re golden. For instance, I’m writing a piece of Harry Potter Fanfic about feeling welcome in the midst of homelessness. I searched quotes on homelessness and found:
“Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
…and now my title is A Place in Your Mind, which also echoes one of Dumbledore’s key lines in the series. Leading us to:
Titular Line — Still Alice, Fiddler on the Roof, Singing in the Rain, and To Kill a Mockingbird use titular lines. You write a book, find a line with the deepest thematic resonance — often one closest to the inciting incident or climax — chip it down and use it. I think the best titular line in history is Till We Have Faces because the entire climax of the book is distilled inside those four words. I think Keith Cronin might have something to say about this in the comments — we interacted a bit on the Facebook group and it sounded like he has an alternate to this one.
MacGuffin — A MacGuffin, according to Hitchcock, is an item essential to a plot. Titling your work after such an item is called “eponym.” The Maltese Falcon, Bands of Mourning, The Deathly Hallows, and The Notebook all use this method. You can also do this with people (The Lord of the Rings, The Little Drummer Girl, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hamlet), actions (The Prestige, Inception, Falling Down, The Renaissance), or places (Camelot, The House of Seven Gables, Brookland). Some titles span categories like Melancholia. The one title that’s a person, place, action, and thing is The Matrix.
Clear and Present Theme — Often authors will state at the outset the theme or themes they intend to engage: War & Peace, Crime & Punishment, Ex Machina, The Young & The Restless, Glory, Sense & Sensibility. All of those are pretty abstract concepts represented in the work as pretty concrete characters and conflicts.
Overarching Metaphor — Sometimes the author will provide a metaphor without comment. You see this in The Fountain; Memento; Synechtoche, New York; Gone with the Wind. My current work in progress features five generations of carpenters in Southern Illinois who fight off the oppression of an oil company with art and love and humor. For that, it seemed good to use the working title “Bell Hammers.”
Cryptonym — I can envision a scenario in which someone might use a cryptonym. A name which has a double meaning and works as an anagram. If Rowling, for instance, titled book two of Harry Potter “Tom Marvolo Riddle,” she would have had even more weight behind the revelation that those letters rearrange into I am Lord Voldemort. Whether any author has done such a thing, I couldn’t say, but ultimately this would simply be a lovechild of the MacGuffin (or eponym) and Titular Line.
You can, in the end, use any combination of these. I encourage you to write towards the apex of your own cleverness. However, keep several on hand in case one tests poorly with small samplings of your audience. And remember: naming the baby isn’t nearly as important as making sure the child grows in wisdom and stature. Better to have a bad name and a good child than a great name for a demon.
That said, we can always try for both: may you have a good title for your great book.
How do you decide on titles for your books? Please share your thoughts and tips!
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