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.