How to Title Stuff

You walk into a bookstore.  A promising book peeks out at you from a shelf.  You take it out and look it over.  Intriguing cover art, thick enough to really enjoy, and the synopsis looks great.  You look at the title again to memorize it for next time (you don’t have the funds this time to splurge on unknown books), and wince.  Despite all its promise, it has a generic title.  White Lie, a contemporary novel.  Dark Kingdom, a fantasy.  My Perfect Laddie, a romance.  Everything else sounds so promising, but someone didn’t know how to title their book.

For me, I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic.  A title that brings nothing new to the imagination doesn’t promise much for the rest of the book.

On the other hand, some writers produce brilliant titles.  The title gives a piece of the book which, combined with the cover, synopsis, and everything else, produces curiosity.  The Scorpio Races, for instance, is rather cryptic in terms of the contents of the book.  However, you know immediately it’s about a race, or a series of races.  Scorpio isn’t very easy to interpret— it has a couple different connotations, but none of them apply to racing.  It seems to imply a bit of danger and some other stuff that means more to people who have read the book.  Combined, the words leave more unknown than they clarified.  They create curiosity, and if you’re trying to figure out what the book is like, you’re still stuck.

I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.  Sneaky author.

You know what a good title does: it makes you curious, it gives you a taste without shoving it down your throat.  But I think you also know how to create a good title.  I’m pretty sure I just explained it.

Words have different connotations depending on where and how you use them.  In a title, almost without context, each word counts.  Look at the connotations of each word— that means the feeling it gives you, not necessarily its definition— and make sure each one is the right one for your story.  If you do it right, it’s almost impossible to write two books with the same title.

So what are the right words for your book?  Well, that kind of depends on the book.  Glance through it for words you made up or words you’ve repurposed.  Brandon Sanderson made up ‘Mistborn’ to describe a magician, so he used that to name his first trilogy.  He created a couple books in his fantasy world (a book within a book— bookception, or should I call it Inkheart), and named The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance after them.  No one knows what any of this means until they read the book.

But take another look at those last two.  No one thinks those titles are the names of books (in the fantasy world, that is— of course they’re names of books in the real world [stop confusing people, Sanderson]), so even though they mean something within the book, they also mean something based on their individual words.  The Way of Kings— it seems to describe a kind of medieval royal duty, which combined with the genre, places it squarely in the middle of epic fantasy territory.  Words of Radiance seems to invoke some sort of magic word thing, since radiance sounds magical.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but how else would you interpret that title?  This is the story of the light whisperer, a great electrician who makes lamps come on at the sound of his voice?  You could think of it that way, but it still promises magic.  And radiance seems more noble.  If I were writing the electrician story, I’d just call it The Light Whisperer.  It’s much easier, and it seems to have a better effect.

Anyway, how do we do this ourselves?  Well, think about the tone of the novel.  Is it snarky?  Is it calm?  Is it scatterbrained?  Each of these things has bearing on your title.  A romance in a medieval fantasy world could be called My Perfect Laddie, as stated above, but if it had a snarky tone, perhaps Peasants are Good Kissers would do the job better.  Does it sound like the same story?  Not really, but My Perfect Laddie (I hate that title, someone shoot it) could apply to a thousand different books.  Peasants are Good Kissers is more specific, but more importantly, it gets the tone across.

How would I repurpose the rest of those titles above?  Dark Kingdom is a fantasy about an evil force growing across the land and the chosen one who stops it, but the chosen one has nothing but a sock (for a very good, plausible fantasy reason).  Dark Lord, Meet Sock comes to mind, as does The Sock of Destiny— okay, these are all comedies so far.  Ideally, you would pick something more serious than a sock to title your epic fantasy, but it can be done.  Actually… no, you’re stuck.  It would have to be a comedy to sell something like this, unless there’s a lot more originality than Frodo with a sock.

Get the picture?  Figure out what you want from your title.  Yes, curiosity, but that just means you should use connotations rather than words to say what your book is about.  Use things that people will understand as they read your book, but make sure those things aren’t too cryptic from the outset.  (The Twysdrn and the Great Xgt, for instance, would be a very bad title.  Inkheart, on the other hand, is the best title possible for that book.)  If you do happen to name your book after the fatal flaw of your main character, you’d better have a very good reason for it.  (For instance, Reckless, by Cornelia Funke again.  Yes, the main character is reckless.  But his name is Jacob Reckless.  There’s a little bit of reason for the way she titled it.)

Are cliche titles always bad?  Not at all.  The Lego Movie, for instance, has a very bad title… or so it seems, until you watch the movie and realize the entire thing is as cliche (but well-written) as its title.  The same goes for Igraine the Brave (can you tell I enjoy Cornelia Funke’s titles?).  On an epic fantasy, disaster.  On a children’s book, it tells you exactly what the author means to say.

Have fun with your titles.  If you usually just use placeholder titles until you finish a book, this post isn’t for you yet.  If you’ve finished a book, however, and find its name frighteningly similar to one of the ones I listed as bad examples, start rethinking.  Both White Lie and Dark Kingdom are real books, by the way (in several forms, if you consider A Little White Lie, Little White Lie, The Dark Kingdom, A Dark Kingdom, Kingdom of Darkness, etc.).  Thankfully, My Perfect Laddie is not.  None of us need that book.

Go.  Title.

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28 thoughts on “How to Title Stuff

  1. My Perfect Laddie evokes the image of romances titled Who is the Hot Rogue in the Kilt?. Rather frightening images. And lots of dramatic internal conflict and possibly a love triangle. *gags*
    And My Perfect Laddie is actually almost a pun of My Fair Lady
    Anyway…
    As for titling my own work… I’m not that good at it. I mean, I get lucky every now and then, but I once named a story Cabbages because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. LASER isn’t such a bad title in general, but it doesn’t fit my story (Not one laser in the story. NOT. ONE.).

    Good post. I enjoyed it.

  2. Interesting. Never thought about using connotations like that before.

    Let’s see, my titles…

    Different. Simple and self-explanatory.
    Living Rain. Not immediately obvious what it means–you figure out there’s rain pretty quickly, but not what the “living” part is about.
    Its sequel, Breaking Rain. This one might be slightly easier to figure out once you’ve read the first book.
    Chords That Bind. Little play on words with the chords/cords thing there. It doesn’t tell you much about the story, but you kind of get the idea of what it means as you read the beginning.
    Golden Silence. Another play on words, there, with the saying “Silence is golden.” It maybe hints a tiny bit at the story, but not really.
    Legally Blind. Haven’t written this story yet because it doesn’t have a plot. But I kind of liked the title. Except now I think it’s a little too…non-exciting.

    Quite frequently I get the title first, for an idea. But when I don’t I have a lot of work ahead of me. Different, for instance, took a while to come up with.

    Anyway. Interesting. Very interesting.

  3. *Shoots My Perfect Laddie.*

    Great post! Love the idea of using connotations. I’m not at the titling stage yet, but I know for a fact that my titles suck more than the love child of a vacuum and a vampire. Noxumbra, which is the name of the main setting. Inspired, I know. Though, I did once consider titling that The Lady Lord, which is what some of the side characters call the MC…but it could also be the title of a book about cross dressers so no. Could do Miss Lord Copperstone, as it’s another one of her nicknames. Hmm. I think I prefer Noxumbra. Half the story is about Noxumbra and it’s past, so it works better. Hmm. Maybe it doesn’t suck as much as I thought.

    And I’m rambling. I’ll stop now. Good post. Will have to take what you said into consideration when I get to titling books 2-5.

  4. *is disappointed that Lily beat her to shooting the title* *shoots it again anyway, because it deserves it*

    The title I’m struggling with at the moment is Oracular. It fits the novel. It really does. But I guess it just sounds a little boring, at least to me. I’ve asked for other opinions on it, and nobody else seems to think it’s as boring as I think it is. Do you think it’s boring? I’m really not sure what else I could call it, though. Heh.

    Of all my titles, my favorite is Half-Cursed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the feel of the title fits the feel of the novel, so I might have to retitle that novel, even as much as it saddens me… Or maybe just try to fix the novel, but…I think maybe I’ll use that title for something else.

    I don’t think I have any other good titles. Most of the rest of my novels just have placeholder names that might inspire a good title later on, but haven’t yet. I did have this idea of naming a book Weaving Shadows, but I don’t have a plot for that yet.

    1. You and Lily are both hilarious.

      I like it. I don’t quite know what it means, but it intrigues me. Half-Cursed is good too, although the title is easier to fix than the novel.

      1. For…shooting a title after you said somebody needs to shoot it? Well, thanks, I guess, hehe. And I think you’re the first person ever to tell me I was hilarious.

        Intriguing. Okay, that sounds like a good thing.
        Yeah, that’s why I figure I’ll just retitle it.

  5. Yes, I do agree the title does have a big part in persuading whether or not one should read a book. I also agree on the title My Perfect Laddie, it should die in hellfire (Why can I not make it italicized?). Anyways, figuring out titles for my novels have never been a strong suit, they just end up being called: novel, novel 1, novel 2, novel 3 (I have a lot of “works in progress”). Then I have to open every one of them to find the the one I want because I can’t remember what number I gave it.

  6. Haha, nice: The Sock of Destiny. Sounds like a parody of an epic fantasy! By the way, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award here. No pressure if you don’t want to do it. 🙂

  7. “Colorblind” doesn’t sound much like a thriller novel, but hopefully it at least makes the reader curious, right? (Also, it makes an interesting promise that I need to work on–the MC has a psychosomatic sort of condition where he can’t see from blue on down the spectrum, though he’s not actually colorblind–far from it. If he ever overcomes the disorder, he’d be able to see in UV light…) And I guess “Loyalties” wasn’t the most imaginative either, but it did fit the subject matter… a loyal retainer, questioning his role as his princess (later queen) spirals down into madness.

      1. I suppose I could try testing out different working titles… I need them to all follow a theme, though, because eventually it’s going to be a trilogy.

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