Never judge a book by its cover? Don’t dis the plot just because of the title? That may be so, but the title of a story is very important. And if you don’t want to believe that, well, you can go ahead and live in Fantasyland. Just think about it. Would Stoker’s novel be as attractive if it were called Bloodsucking European Guy? How about Stephanie Meyer? You think she’d be a pop culture icon for penning Sparkly, Overly-Emotional Vampires Who DON’T Drink Blood?
Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
The title is responsible for establishing mood in a reader even before the first paragraph is read, and there comes a feeling when you’ve found the right title for your project that fills you with a kind of warmth. You just know that it works. Now, we can’t imagine Dracula being called anything but.
Nevertheless, finding the right title can be a journey on its own. I’m not saying that it needs to take up all of your time – something’s wrong if you’re spending five hours a day figuring the title but only five minutes writing the story – but you need to put some thought into it. A working title will suffice only until it’s time to present the final product.
Don’t be afraid to ditch a title you thought was great at the start. It happens. The title of my alien invasion novel was, for me, set in stone for nearly two years. Recently, however, I’ve felt it’s kind of drab and now I’m looking for a replacement. Also, don’t ever – EVER! – make your title so lengthy that no one will easily remember it. Ellen Bass has a poem called When the Young Geneticist Was Asked, “Aren’t you worried about the implications of your work?” with a Toss of Her Sun-Streaked Hair, She Declared, “No, not at all. I can’t wait to fuck a clone.”
I’m not kidding. That’s the full title. The poem itself isn’t long; I read it a few times in grad school. But ever time I’d discuss it with my adviser or fellow students, I always called it “that geneticist poem.” How else was I to remember it? So my cardinal rule is to keep the title short, no more than ten words.
That said, here are some ideas that might help you on your way:
- Quotations: For my alien invasion novel, I used a quote from Ronald Reagan that I thought would fit the overall theme. You can use a historical reference or you can quote something said by a character of yours. They do this in movies a lot with Saving Private Ryan, As Good As It Gets and (dare I say it?) Hot Tub Time Machine.
- A character: You make a character’s name the title like Stoker did with Dracula. Other examples are Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The title or nickname of a character works very well too: Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
- Place names: Off the top of my head, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a good example with each part relating to a certain place in the afterlife – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise). The Road by Cormac McCarthy is another good one.
- A hidden meaning: This is a great way to add layers beneath the obvious. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a good one, relating the zombies (obviously) but also the notion that the survivors are in a state of death as well. Justin Cronin said that The Passage refers not only to the journey of the characters but also to the world’s transition from a living one to a place of death.
- An event: The title can relate the main situation of the story such as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.
There are some other ways to name a story, but these, I find, are the most common guides.