You finally type those final two words – THE END – and sit back in your chair, put your hands behind your head, and let out a deep sigh. The manuscript is done. You’ve revised the plot, you’ve deepened the characters, you’ve proofread each line and corrected the typos and the dangling participles. But believe it or not, there’s still one crucial task to do that can make or break your work although it involves no more than 10 additional words.
You’ve got to think of a great title. And that’s trickier than it sounds. Because the wrong title can sabotage all the hard work you put into the story. It can confuse a reader or turn off an agent or simply get lost in the thousands of other titles published each year.
So how to pick a title that fits with your novel but is also catchy enough to attract an audience? After all, it’s pretty well agreed that if F. Scott Fitzgerald had persisted in naming his piece Trimalchio in West Egg, it wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies as The Great Gatsby. Ditto Strangers From Within that morphed into Lord of the Flies or Jane Austen’s First Impressions which we now know as Pride and Prejudice.
I struggled myself as I worked my way through titles as varied as Lost and Found, Not So Simple and Boomerang before finally settling on Truth and Other Lies for my debut novel.
Here are some guidelines that worked for me:
Consider your genre
Go to your local library or bookstore and find the spot where books like yours are shelved. You’ll discover many of the same words get used, ones that telegraph to a reader what kind of story this is. Women’s fiction uses words like family, home, mother, sister, cottage, heart, love, and neighbor but in science fiction, it’s earth, planet, space, travel, stars, worlds, science, and clone and for psychological thrillers you get shadow, stranger, gone, lost, secret, scream, kill, stalker, stolen, and body. Make a long list of all the single words you associate with your genre to spark your imagination.
Studies have shown that the most successful book titles have two-to-four words in them. A quick glance at my bookshelf shows me The Great Believers, Stranger Diaries, Shotgun Lovesongs, My Dark Vanessa, Shoulder Season, and A Good Marriage as examples. But there are also a whole host of one word titles that have gone on to great success, including Snap, Monogamy, Carrie, Quicksand, and Valentine. Likewise, this last year we’ve frequently seen quite long, more complex titles from How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House to Daisy Jones and the Six, and my current favorite, None of This Would Have Happened If Prince Were Alive.
By far the most commonly seen titles start with “The” followed by phrases that denote who the protagonist is (The Marsh King’s Daughter, The Silent Patient) the setting (The Bridges of Madison County) or a suggestion of the plot (The Last Flight, The Hunger Games).
Another common approach is to use well-known phrases from songs, Bible verses, poems, or nursery rhymes. So we have Along Came a Spider, Tender is the Night, All the King’s Men, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
You might also consider the themes in your book and choose to have your title reflect that. Examples from recent books are Trust Me, Little Fires Everywhere, and We Are Not Like Them. And sometimes you can find a particularly lovely line in your manuscript itself that would be an appropriate title. Think the speech in To Kill A Mockingbird which is echoed in the title or the phrase Gone With the Wind, used in the book itself when referring to the demise of the Old South after the Civil War.
Use simple, but evocative words and avoid generalizations
Have you ever read a book, seen a review of it a month later, and not been able to remember whether that title was what you read or not? Sometimes books in the same genre tend to blur together, which can hurt sales if a reader isn’t sure whether your book is What She Knew or What She Saw or maybe even What She Heard. Instead, add specificity to your title with What Jenny Saw or Whispers on the Staircase. And avoid words that will trip a reader up. Nobody wants to stumble over a title with a word they can’t pronounce.
Try for a title that telegraphs the tone/mood/voice of the novel
Is your book written a bit tongue-in-cheek? Then titles like Finlay Donovan is Killing It or Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck totally work and provide the reader a clue to the type of novel they’re selecting. Ditto the current bunch of lighter women’s fiction with funny titles like I Thought You Said This Would Work and Life and Other Near-Death Experiences. But if your book is a serious examination of toxic relationships, you’ll want to use You Will Remember Me or I Am Not Who You Think I Am instead.
Test Drive Possible Titles on Social Media or Your Writing Circle
Ask for feedback on reader or writer Facebook groups or on Instagram. Present a brief description of your book and give the person 3 choices to pick from. Or flip it around and present the 3 choices and ask your reader what those titles suggest to them. Keep an ongoing list of the responses and hone your options down to 2-3 and live with them for a while. Over time, one will likely resonate with you.
I’ll leave you with a few of the titles I rejected during my process. Who knows? Maybe one will be perfect for your WIP.
Nobody Dies At a Funeral, Homesick Blues, Say It Out Loud, Scratch the Surface, By the Side of the Road, Third Day Gone, Expiration Date, Out of Order, and finally, my all-time favorite, Put the Gun On The Table If You Love Me.