Look, titles are tough. We think writing synopses, query letters, or back cover copy is hard. But try distilling your entire book into a handful of words, and you might come up with a long list of duds before landing that final good one. So here are some tips for choosing a long list of preliminary titles for your book.
The Reporter Method
Think like a reporter and ask who, what, where, when, why. List people, places, times, and settings.
Then next to each of those, come up with some adjectives to describe each. You might want to do this in a brain-mapping program like Exobrain.
Examples of the Reporter Method:
- The Great Gatsby (rejected titles: Trimalchio in West Egg and The High-Bouncing Lover)
- Casablanca (rejected: Everybody Comes To Rick’s)
- Lolita (rejected: The Kingdom by the Sea)
- Ninteen Eighy-Four (rejected: The Last Man in Europe)
The Pull-Quote Method
While writing or revising, keep a list of your favorite lines, even lines that you end up killing as darlings. Then cut up those quotes for possible titles.
Examples of the Pull-Quote Method:
- To Kill a Mockingbird (rejected: Atticus)
- Love Actually
- Fortunately, the Milk
The Genre-Pleasing Method
You want your title to reach the right audience, so on Goodreads or Amazon, find the top 10 bestsellers in your genre and the most recent 10 debuts in your genre, if possible. Use the grammar of those titles as a Mad Libs for your own titles. For example, if you’re writing a thriller, you might find a lot of “The Girl …” titles. If you’re writing women’s fiction, you might find a host of “The [occupation]’s [female relative].” If you’re writing young adult fantasy, you might find a few with the word “Queen.”
Consider which words, symbols, and grammar titles within your genre use, and then take those as suggestions of how to imply your genre through your title.
Examples of the Genre-Pleasing Method:
- The Girl on the Train
- The Time Traveler’s Wife
- Queen of Shadows
- After I Do
The Thematic Method
Beside the genre, you also might want your title to also evoke the mood or meaning of your story. You certainly don’t want them to evoke the opposite mood or meaning! Consider symbolism, theme, and motifs used in your story and list those as possible titles.
Examples of the Thematic Method:
- An Ember in the Ashes
- Pride and Prejudice (rejected: First Impressions)
- War and Peace (rejected: All’s Well That Ends Well)
The Single Word Method
This can go well for you, but it can also go horribly wrong. The trick is to find a single word that is unique enough that if someone googles “[Word] Book” or “[Word] Movie,” etc. your title will be the first result. You can see why the movie Epic didn’t do so well.
Examples of The Single Word Method:
- JAWS (rejected: Squam, QUIDNET, and so many more)
- Tangled, Brave, Frozen…
The List Method
This was my only method for titles when I was in middle school and obsessed with the first Georgia Nicolson book. You list words.
Examples of the List Method:
- Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- Fates and Furies
The Wordsmith Method
Some powerful titles are realized in an ironic way. The title may have a double-meaning, or it might be a play on words. Brainstorm idioms that might fit with your story’s concept or characters.
Examples of the Wordsmith Method:
- Arrested Development
- Fool Moon
- Child’s Play
- Just Shoot Me
- (more TV show titles with double meanings)
The Cultured Method
Many literary titles are culled from other literary sources, especially Shakespeare or the bible. While reading, listening to music, or viewing art, take note of phrases that might apply to your book’s mood, theme, or characters.
Examples of the Cultured Method:
- Brave New World
- As I Lay Dying
- A Time to Kill
- What Dreams May Come
- Band of Brothers
- The Sound and the Fury
- A Confederacy of Dunces
- For Whom the Bell Tolls
- The Grapes of Wrath
- A Handful of Dust
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- No Country for Old Men
- Number the Stars
- Vanity Fair
- (more titles taken from literature)
The Successful Writer Method
Successful writers use any of the previous methods, or more. But all of them had to let the title steep for days, weeks, months, or years, and they all had to get their title approved by editors or readers. Titles are collaborative. Bounce ideas off a critique partner, editor, friends or beta readers. Ask what moods the titles evoke. Ask what they think the book/story might be about. Talk your process out and get feedback.
And be prepared to change the title if it gets to an editor, test audience, or market and doesn’t pass their approval (see this link of rejected movie titles).
These methods can help you with the long list, but if you’re going to play in the big leagues, you might find your title changed, especially if it’s going to be made into a blockbuster.