Professional book editor in the UK explains how authors can easily pick the perfect title for their novel!
The saying, ‘don't judge a book by its cover’, in the literal sense, was only applicable centuries ago. When George Eliot wrote that line in her book, The Mill on the Floss, in 1860, she probably didn’t envision this new crazy world where we have a gazillion things battling for our attention daily; tens of concurrently running browser tabs, hundreds of book-reading apps, endless 30-second videos, a flurry of memes, the list goes on. Welcome to the 21st century, where the attention span of humans has dwindled.
When you put all of this into context, you realise that if your book doesn’t instantly hook people, they won’t pick it up. So, your title is your elevator pitch, your less than 5-second YouTube ad to your potential reader, so you have to make it count.
While there are no fixed rules for titling your story, there are tested guidelines and tips that can land you that eye-catching word, phrase, or sentence to splash on your front cover.
Think of your title as the peephole potential readers use to get a first peek into your story. What do they see through this tiny bit of opening? A crumbling society? A budding romance? A slasher psychopath?
Your title shouldn’t be too distant from the substance of the story itself but should provide enough insight into what your story is all about. It’s necessary to consider how the string of words you want to choose for your title relates to the plot.
Imagine if Harry Potter was titled ‘Bad Aunt’ or ‘Gifted Orphan’. These things are indeed reflected in the story, but the series is so much more than the death of Potter's parents or his maltreatment by his aunt. He was central to the events of the story, and it was only fitting that the books were titled after him.
So, without further ado, here’s list of 9 diverse types of titles you could use for your novel.
1. Eponymous Titles
This is easy and usually effective. Several of the greatest stories in history are eponymous in nature. If your story revolves around the life of a character, especially if it's about their coming of age, an eponymous title stands if all others fail. Oliver Twist is such a brilliant example that it has today become an expression synonymous with ‘wanting more’ (a memorable situation in the life of Mr. Twist.)
Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, and Romeo and Juliet are all examples of great titles that not only give an insight into what the story is and who it’s about but have also transcended into having symbolic meanings of their own in present times.
2. Titles About Places
If the setting of your story also plays a key role in the sequence of events or the lives of your characters, titling the story after that could also be a great idea.
With Alice in Wonderland, the readers are caught by the idea of a place filled with ‘wonder’. Indeed, their expectations are met with this place of strange meals that drastically change the size of the girl in the story and the weirdest of situations.
The Chronicles of Narnia is another series that’s named after the setting, intriguing readers into wanting to know where it is and how to get there.
3. Titles About Events
An event pivotal to your story would also be a viable choice for titling your book. Bonus points if this event is something of an entirely new creation in the story.
The Hunger Games, for example, is a periodic event that defines the workings of a dystopian society. Using it as a title is a strong reflection of what’s to be expected in the story: the dour lives of people who are starved of a happy existence by their government and their fight for freedom.
The 5th Wave is another example of a title that describes an event, which may spark a bit of curiosity, making some people wonder, ‘the 5th wave of what?’ So, although some titles named after the events of the book may give readers an idea of what to expect, some can be vague and create intrigue.
4. Serial Titles
If your story is a series, it’s important to make each title match or bear similarities to each other. For example, in the Fifty Shades trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Free), even though the titles are technically different names, they are variations of each other, and it was easy for readers to know that these books were connected.
If you weren’t aware that E.L James had another book coming out after the first and you were patiently waiting for the second, seeing Fifty Shades Darker on a shelf may have piqued your interest if you've read the first story in the series. You could also consider subtitling your serial books while retaining the original headline. Two of the most popular examples are Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. In this case, the main title is retained while subtitles follow in subsequent instalments of the story, giving a further hint of what each book could focus on.
5. Unusual Titles
The absurd will always provide the hook you need to snag a curious reader. Most readers can recall doing a scan of a bookshelf and briefly seeing a book that made them double take due to a nonsensical title, and many will also tell you they picked up the book for that reason.
Our brains do a decent job of picking out the abnormal and absurd, so it could be a smart move to take advantage of that and let your title make the reader look twice.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a good example of an unusual title. You're forced to take a second glance at this book because, really, are androids not the software that allows our smartphones to work? Can they even dream? Electric sheep? What are those?
However, going for an unusual title may mean that you have to go beyond what readers will normally associate with your story, however, that kind of deviation should be done in a manner that won’t completely throw off your potential audience.
6. Genre-related Titles
The genre of your writing should also guide you in choosing your title. Thriller and crime titles should try to evoke a mixture of action, mystery, and justice from the onset, while titles for romantic comedies should try to be warm, homely, and light.
Imagine a romantic comedy titled The Bloodied Knife or naming a contemporary story The Prince's Fairy Chariots. Neither title really evokes the images associated with these genres.
As a result, your title should reflect the genre of your story in such a way that curious readers aren’t confused about whether to pick it up or not.
7. Punny Titles
Particularly for children’s books, comedies, and romances, though it could work with any genre and classification, it could be an innovative idea to redesign common sayings, idioms, and proverbs to create a brand-new title for your novel to grab people's attention. Distorting the familiar and making your readers question the reason for the change is one of the cleverest ways to get a second look at your novel, which is similar to using unusual titles, except that in this case, your readers are already familiar with the word(s) you have twisted around to make something new.
For example, It’s Getting Scot in Here is a Scottish historical romance, which clearly plays on the phrase (and well-known song) it’s getting hot in here.
8. Title Drops
A title drop is when the story's title is drawn from an expression within the book itself.
This line could be from a dialogue, a soliloquy, your character's stream of consciousness, a sign on the road, or something your characters read in a letter, etc. However, it can’t just be any line; it should, to a great extent, encapsulate the idea or relate to the general theme of the story.
The raw form of the expression might not be a good fit for a title, so you might have to tweak the tense, numbers, or voice to make it more title worthy.
Paper Towns could be considered a title drop due to Margo’s line of dialogue: ‘Here's what's not beautiful about it: from here, you can't see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You can see how fake it all is. It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town.’
Up until that point in the novel, paper towns weren’t mentioned, so readers learn the real reason for the title of the book.
9. Imagery-evoking Titles
Let your title engage with the reader's senses. Paint a picture, evoke a feeling, conjure a taste or smell, and tickle your reader's ears. In essence, let the imagination of your potential readers wander when they read your title.
Things Fall Apart does an excellent job in this respect. When things fall and break, there's a shattering sound, they look scattered, and a deafening silence follows, leaving everyone tense. As a result, the image and feelings evoked by this title allude perfectly to the content of the story.
While it’s fine for me to provide several types of titles to create for your novel, I thought it would also be useful to list the different ways you could conjure ideas and narrow down the shortlisted titles, and also provide a few general rules to remember when producing your title.
3 Ways to Generate Title Ideas
1. Create Several Options for Yourself
Freestyle with words and create several options for your story's title. Anything that comes to your mind about how the story makes you feel, words you think strongly represent the themes of the book, a motif you have noticed in the story, or anything that runs through your mind.
Write them down, restructure if necessary, and give yourself options to choose from.
For example, there are rumours that J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter and the Three Champions before deciding on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which makes sense and could have worked, but Goblet of Fire has a much better ring to it.
2. Scan the Internet
The internet can serve many purposes in titling your book, so if you’re stuck, a quick scan of traditionally published books or reader sites and blogs could show you how others have titled their novels. And if there's any useful trends you notice, you can let that serve as an inspiration.
Conversely, an internet search in the genre you're writing will also help you know which titles not to choose, because they’re already taken, and you don’t want to plagiarise or get accused of being unoriginal. Even if you notice a trend, use it as a guide for how to stand out within that trend. You don't have to join the bandwagon.
3. Seek Advice from Readers
After creating several options for your book, get opinions from potential readers on what stands out to them the most. Friends, family, book clubs, social media polls, and Google surveys are all ways you can get advice on your title, but remember, only present your title options to avid readers, book buyers, or book editors who can be honest with you and know what names turn heads the most.
However, do be aware that most of the people you ask won’t know your plot, characters or setting, unless you’ve shared your novel with close friends & family, so many voters may not have all the context to properly judge. You could, however, help them to make informed choices by providing a blurb alongside the title options.
Whatever your choice in naming your book, always remember that your title and cover are the first things potential readers see, so the stakes are even higher when you're an upcoming author with no bestseller to your name yet.
Be ready to go above and beyond to convince potential readers that your book is the one they should read next.
4 General Rules or Titling Your Novel
1. Your Book Cover and Title Should Match
Just as your title should relate to your story in some way, your title and cover should complement each other and create a synergy to pique a potential reader’s instant interest, so if you hire a cover designer, make sure they’re aware of your book’s name so they can ensure that the cover the create for you make sense.
Many book cover designers invite their clients to fill out a questionnaire to gather as much information about the novel as possible before they start designing, but if they don’t, make sure they know the title and genre at least.
2. Short & Sweet
One general rule for book titles is that they should briefly capture the essence of the story in a few words. You don’t want your title to be too long, so if you find yourself winding through several words to make a title, you might want to simply name your book after the central character, event, or place.
3. Be Original
One of the greatest mistakes you can make as an author is giving your book an overused title that’s been seen and done before and can easily be copied.
When walking through a bookstore, your potential reader is bombarded with a horde of colourful and eye-catching novels, so why should they settle for a title that sounds like a book they read years ago?
Originality is even more important when you consider how search engines work. You're already competing with thousands of authors for your readers' attention, so giving them a similar or common title may not help your book stand out on the internet.
If you’re a new author, having distinct titles is even more important, so you should do enough research to ensure that another author (especially a famous one who writes in your genre) doesn’t already have a story titled in a similar way.
On top of this, you also don’t want to get done for plagiarism. While copyright laws differ according to jurisdictions, book titles are typically not copyrightable. However, certain words, names, and sayings may be trademarked or have some sort of intellectual property protection.
As a result, ensure that your book isn’t infringing on anyone's intellectual property.
4. Easy to Read and Pronounce
Try to avoid choosing tongue twisters or titles that are difficult to pronounce.
Remember, you're looking to captivate potential readers at a first glance and impress them enough that they choose your novel. In a plethora of options, most readers won't waste time trying to understand the phonetics of a mysterious title.
Conversely, the unusualness of the difficult-to-pronounce word might pique the interest of a curious reader, so if a word in your title has been unheard of before – perhaps you’ve made it up – consider sharing it with others to see if they can read and pronounce it with ease.
So, there we are – 9 diverse types of titles you could create, 3 helpful ways to conjure new title ideas, and 4 general rules to remember when naming your book.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful – if you did and you’re now better equipped to pick the perfect title for your novel, please share it with others who could use the advice!
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!