For many of you, it’s possible that one of the most difficult parts of the writing process is coming up with a title for your story. This is also a challenge for me.
Consequently, I often research the subject of titles and pay attention to the titles I like best in an attempt to figure out why they are so catchy. I know I’m still far from mastering the subject, but I have already identified a number of keys to writing a good title, and you may also find them useful!
Coming Up with a Title
The Uruguayan writer and poet Mario Benedetti said, “The title is an important part of the story; it lights it up.” A good title must light up the text it precedes without revealing its mysteries; it has to be suggestive, intriguing, and attractive. As if this isn’t enough, it must also match the style of the story. But how are we supposed to do all this?
1. Lists, Lists, and More Lists. You already know I’m a fan of lists, but the thing about them is they work. So, armed with pen and paper, make a long list of possible titles for your story. Remember not to censor yourself and write down all the options that come to your mind – no matter how crazy they seem to you.
If you save your list and go back to it after a few days, you’ll probably be able to come up with a title you like. Well … maybe not. After he finished a story, Hemingway would make a list of about one hundred possible titles. He would then cross them out one by one until there were none left. Then he would start the process all over again, of course.
2. Search Your Text. The answer frequently lies within the text itself. Find a key sentence that summarizes the topic or becomes the leitmotif (the main recurring theme) of your story, a suggestive snippet of dialogue, or the title of a book or song mentioned in your work.
3. The Essence of Your Story. Another way to add titles to the list is to create sentences or words that contain the essence of your story. But where are they to be found?
They can be in the main topic, in the relationship between the characters, in set phrases or sayings related to what your text is about, in the main conflict, in the setting, in the emotions the story is supposed to transmit to the reader, etc. Separate yourself as much as you can from your writing and answer these questions in two or three words: What does your story tell? What is it about? Which message does it transmit?
4. Analyze Similar Works. A great system to search for a good title is to analyze titles belonging to books or stories you have already read. Try to choose the ones you like best for topics that are linked to your story. List them, and try to guess what they have in common, why you like them, and what you think makes them attractive.
Types of Titles
Now that we’ve considered the titles of other stories or novels, it’s the perfect time to reflect a little bit on the different types of titles we most commonly find in the publishing market.
1. The Traditional Formulas. There are two formulas for book titles which have been repeated for a long time and which publishers seem to love: “noun + of + noun” or “adjective + noun”.
Moon Palace, Lord of the Flies, Game of Thrones, or Bad Karma are titles that, among many other examples, fall within this category of traditional formulas.
2. Long and Surprising Titles. In recent times, a much longer and generally striking type of title has proliferated. It’s goal is to awaken our curiosity and make us want to know more about the story or the novel behind it. A great example of a long title is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
3. Fixed Expressions. Set phrases, sayings, common expressions, metaphors – all of them can be an immense source of inspiration when it gets down to coming up with a title. For instance, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood belongs in this category.
4. Contrasts. Contrasts tend to get our attention, so using them in your title sounds like a logical alternative. The novel When God Was a Rabbit is an illustrative example of how the use of contrast can result in a good title. A title stating that God has been a rabbit shocks us as readers and makes us curious about the content of the novel.
5. Character Names. Sometimes we also find books whose titles correspond to the name of one of the main characters as is the case with Anna Karenina or Lolita. Evidently, these are unusually powerful and charismatic names.
6. A Single Word. The “noun” or “article + noun” structure (The Pearl, It, Timbuktu, etc.) is also a recurring formula. As those inspired by character names, single-word titles must have power and charisma in order to be effective.
Of course, this is just a small sample of the infinite possibilities in the world of titles. There are also titles based on dialogues, thematic titles (Crime and Punishment), and vocatives as well (Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant).