Knowing how to write a book title that intrigues readers is key to gaining your audience’s attention. Try these five steps to choosing a title for your novel:
Step 1: Study successful books’ titles to learn how effective titles work
Step 2: Examine your novel’s themes for title ideas
Step 3: Become familiar with popular title structures
Step 4: Remember the multiple functions your title will serve
Step 5: Create a shortlist of options and ask for feedback from other readers and writers
To expand on each of these 5 steps:
1: How to write a book title: Learning from successful novels
The title of your novel isn’t everything. For your manuscript to be highly publishable it needs to:
- Have commercial potential
- Have been edited by a professional
- Have a compelling story idea
- Have broad appeal in its genre or subject niche
Even so, a great title goes a long way to making your book get noticed.
Some of the titles of the biggest publishing sensations of the last decade provide clues on what works: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl on the Train, 50 Shades of Grey and Harry Potter are four examples.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of genre or literary fiction (or both), these titles reveal some of the important elements of book titles:
- They create curiosity (which girl on what train? Who is Harry Potter? Why does the girl have a dragon tattoo and why is this identifying detail important?)
- They’re concise (this helps make a title memorable and is also practical from a book design perspective)
- They introduce the reader already to a pivotal character, setting or subject (the boy with the seemingly ordinary British name turns out to have a magical future in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels)
The titles of successful books are simple yet striking, intriguing but not confusing or awkwardly worded. As an exercise, create a list of some of your favourite novels. Note down for each:
- The title.
- All connections you can find between the title and the theme, plot, characters and locations of the novel.
This is helpful because you will consciously uncover how your best books’ titles relate to their contents. It will help you write titles that similarly encapsulate your own story.
2: Examining your novel’s themes and concerns for title ideas
You don’t have to wait until your novel is complete before choosing a title. If you have themes and plot worked out and are still in the process of writing, you can still devise a working title:
Create title ideas by finding the potential names buried in your story’s themes and concerns. A single theme (war and its aftermath, for example) can spark off many title ideas. For example, you could make a list of terminology used in military operations: ‘Active duty’, ‘advance force’, ‘ground alert’. Find whether some of these can be combined with other words and phrases to create compelling titles.
3: Becoming familiar with popular book title structures
You don’t have to be formulaic in naming your book. Even so, some title structures work. For example:
Effective titles are often created by joining a noun that describes a strong action or emotion with a noun that describes a significant object or character from the novel:
- The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
- The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
If place is important in your novel, a title using the propositions ‘on’ or ‘in’ can be effective (such as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).
Titles do not have to be overly complicated or structured, though. Many successful novels have single-word titles: Toni Morrison’s Pultizer-winning novel Beloved and Jonathan Franzen’s critically-acclaimed novel Freedom are only two examples. There is no single format for writing a great title. Even so it is helpful to think about structure because focusing on this aspect will help you craft a title that packs a punch.
4: Remembering the multiple functions your novel’s title will serve
Besides being the name that identifies your novel and beckons readers in bookstores or on the Amazon Kindle store, your book title serves other functions. As Scott Berkun reminds here, it can also be:
- The URL for your book’s website
- Words used to emblazon advertising and promotional materials
- Something you will have to repeat countless times while promoting your book
- A word or phrase that is shown alongside your name in online or print bios
As Berkun advises, you can’t work all of these functions (he lists several more) into your book’s title. But think about these things: Consider how a title-meets-website-domain can capitalize on popular book searches in Google, for example. This will help you create a title that works for you and your book on multiple levels. Remember that your title will also follow you around as Berkun says, so it’s worth making sure you choose a title you’re happy with.
5: Getting book title advice from writers and readers
The book titles we love or hate are highly subjective. Yet an external perspective is still useful when you are too close to your writing to decide (with at least some objectivity) whether your title’s good or not. Once you have a shortlist of potential titles for your book, ask others for helpful feedback. Rather than ask biased friends, get to know other writers who won’t sugar-coat their feedback.
There is also plenty of advice to be found on writing book titles around the web. Berkun shares Michael Hyatt’s helpful article ‘Four Strategies for Creating Titles that Jump off the Page’. For Hyatt, the most effective titles are those that do one of four things: Make a promise, create intrigue, identify a need or simply state the book’s content.
Great advice can be found outside of the fiction writing world too. Marketers and copywriters are trained in using bold, persuasive language. They know what aspects of titles lure readers and what titles the average reader ignores. You don’t have to re-write your novel title as click-bait (even though these examples of classic book titles re-imagined are funny and bold). All this requires is makin an effort to understand the kind of language that makes the average reader sit up and say ‘I’m listening’. This will help you write better book titles.
Do you have a book idea you want to develop? Make progress on your novel now.
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