What’s in a Name?

You’ve just completed the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written in your life. You’re so proud of this accomplishment, this work of art that poured out of you beginning with just a single idea. You go to post/submit it, when suddenly it hits you:

You don’t have a title!!

The horror! You suddenly feel cold and lifeless, like the weight of the world has suddenly fallen upon your shoulders. You sit back and think about your story, but all the titles you can think of are too plain and generic. A few times, the title is almost within your grasp, but then it slips away.

So you turn to your favourite playlists and scour them for song titles and lyrics. You look at the books sitting on your shelf. You search through your story looking for words that jump out at you. There has to be a good title somewhere, right?!

How many of you have ever been through this experience? Some of you may be those glorious writers who come up with a title first thing, and I envy you. This exact scenario has happened to me so many times—sometimes even as a deadline is ticking ever nearer! Titles tend to elude me, and this is very typical of my personality. I always have trouble summing up my thoughts in a word or two (that’s why I write stories!).

So what do you do when you find yourself in this scenario? Many times, I’ve just panicked until something comes to me. Usually it comes from reading the story over and over again. Eventually, a line will jump out at me and I’ll breathe out a long sigh as I retitle the document.

But, as I’ve had to live with this title-producing deficiency, I’ve learned better ways to create a title than just hoping something will come to me. Titles are so, so important, so it’s necessary to get them right. If you want people to read your story, you have to pick the right title to go before it.

So how do you sum up a whole story in a few words? How do you create a title that’s unique and exciting? Let’s take a look.

The Categories

We’re going to be taking a look specifically at book titles today, as movie titles, short story titles and all the other kinds of titles could probably each have their own post!

It’s been my experience that book titles usually fall into one of three categories. This isn’t any official classification, as far as I know, it’s just what I’ve noticed when it comes to book titles:

  1. A physical thing (or things) that is important in the book (a description of a character [knight, author, pilot, etc. but not an actual name], a place, an event, an object, etc.)
  2. The theme of the book/an important thought not necessarily stated in the book itself
  3. The main character’s name

If you go look at your bookshelf right now, I can guarantee that most—if not all—of the book titles will fall under one of these categories. (Don’t worry, I’ll give some examples of each category in a moment!)

What’s the first thing you notice about these categories? I hope it’s the fact that they’re actually ridiculously simple! Book titles seem difficult because you have to sum up your whole book in a title, and there are basically no rules for what that title can be. It seems like there are endless possibilities! But when you look at most book titles, you’ll realise they’re actually quite basic. The journey to finding the right title may not be easy, but knowing that most titles fit into one of these categories gives you somewhere to start.

So the next question is, “How do I know which one of these categories my title should fit into?” The answer is: only you can tell. You wrote your book, so you know it best. Think of the most important parts of your book, whether they be physical things or themes. Read through your book and write down words that jump out at you, even if they wouldn’t form a good title on their own. Try piecing different words together. There’s really not a hard and fast formula for coming up with a title—you just have to think. But hopefully these following descriptions will help with the thought process!

1. A Physical Title

Most titles fall under this category. Think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Dune, The Hunger Games, The Fellowship of the Ring, Murder on the Orient Express… These are probably titles you’ve heard and said often, but if you really think about them, they’re so simple! They’re just stating a person/place/event/object in the book.

So no, it’s really not ridiculous to name a story something as simple as The Road. If that sums up your story, there you go!

2. A Thematic Title

While naming your story after something within the book (The Road) is great and often produces simple but memorable titles, you can also dive deeper past the “physical” aspects of your book and into the things that aren’t stated, like emotions, moods, and themes. These will often produce more complicated titles that don’t state something directly from the book.

Think of A New Hope for example, the title of the very first Star Wars movie. While the word “hope” is played around with in the movie, A New Hope goes past just the physical level of the movie and delves into what the story really means. It’s interesting that just about every other Star Wars title favours the more simple, concrete title. I think that A New Hope was a beautiful way to begin the series.

Other titles like this would be Great Expectations, Twilight, Pride and Prejudice, Till We Have Faces, etc. These titles all centre around the theme/mood of the novel or non-physical forces that drive the novel.

3. The Main Character’s Name

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you may be surprised by just how many titles fall under this category. (And note: this is only when it is literally the name of the main character as the title; The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, would not fall under this category, but rather the first one, since it is a description of a character and not the actual name of a character.)

Titles in this category are such as David Copperfield, Emma, Agnes Grey, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Artemis Fowl, Coraline, Don Quixote, Eragon… The list is endless.

This may seem like the simple, easy way to go, but be warned:

If you name your book after your main character, your main character must be very, very strong.

And no, I don’t mean physically strong. If you’ve read any of these books, you’ll notice that all of them tell a tale that closely follows the main character. The MC will grow throughout the book, and it’s often a story about a significant time in their life. We usually watch the MC grow up in these kinds of stories.

What I’m saying is that you should only name your book after the main character if you’re absolutely, 100% positive that your main character is the most important part of your story and that you’ve spent lots and lots of time developing them into a very strong character that will take the reader on a journey.

Hard and Fast “Rules”

So now you know the categories, but where do you go from there?

I know, I said that titles don’t really have rules, but these are more like guidelines you should follow if you really want your book to have a great title that readers will remember:

  1. Make it snappy
  2. Make it unique (to a point)
  3. Make it memorable

1. Snappy

Notice that most book titles are very, very short, usually around 3-4 words. They can go longer (think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again), and they can certainly go shorter, but 3-4 words is a pretty good middle ground to shoot for. This ensures that your title is short enough to be remembered but long enough to be unique.

2. Unique

Of course you want your title to be unique, but notice I also said to a point. Take my imaginary title from earlier, The Road. I’d argue that you could actually use that title because there’s nothing else I instantly think of that has that title. You can do a Google search to see, but generally, I think that it would work. Someone somewhere has probably titled their story the same thing, but as there’s been nothing extremely famous with that title, most people wouldn’t look at your story and think of something else. So go for it!

On the other hand, if you tried to name your story A Quiet Place… Well, it is a good title, but it’s kinda taken now. (Maybe in a good 100 years or so you can try it!) I’ve been thinking of a title for a project I’m working on and I had the thought: “Woah, A Game of Shadows would be such a cool title for this!”

Until I realised… Oops. That already exists.

So your title can certainly be a little more “generic” if that’s what you think fits your story the most. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad title at all; as I pointed out, many of the most famous titles are very simple. You just want to make sure that when a reader sees your book, they won’t immediately think of another book/movie/show. That’s what making your title “unique” really means.

3. Memorable

Making a title memorable is essentially putting into practice making your title unique and snappy. Once your title is short and unique and accurately reflects your book, voila, you most likely have a memorable title!

Final Thoughts

Depending on what genre your book is in, your title will probably be quite different. Have you noticed that horror stories often have very simple titles? Or that romance books often have some kind of reference to love or one of the main characters in the title? It’s important to know what the standard is for your genre. Go on Amazon and take a look at some of the bestsellers. Talk with other writers about their stories. I’m not saying you can’t stray from the norm, but you don’t want to name an action/thriller Three Dancing Princesses either.

Really, it all comes down to this: what is most important in your story? Is it one of the characters? The setting? The theme? You’ll often get an idea for a title if you think about these things. If your character is most important, you can possibly name the story after them or consider their attributes, failings, and successes to find a title. If it’s your theme, how can you express it poetically in a few words?

But if you’re trying to come up with a title based on your character and nothing’s hitting you, move on. I guarantee that as you focus on different parts of your book, something will come to you eventually. The last thing you want to do is sit there thinking on one thing when it’s not working.

I’m a strong advocate for change when the current writing situation is going nowhere.

This goes for anything when it comes to writing. If you get stuck, don’t just stay stuck. Focus on something else; it will make it way easier to keep going.

So the next time you find yourself with a finished story and no title, don’t lose all hope. Your title is out there, and all you have to do is commit yourself to the road to finding it.

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