What Makes a Good Title?


August 23, 2012 by jcfarnham

I’m going to have to shoot myself in the foot before I’ve started here.

I don’t have the answer to that question. Wish I did. I really wish I had the power to type gold with my fingers, stuff that catches the eye “just so”… As far as I know, I can’t.

… But I do think I can move part way towards an answer by ananysing my preferences.

You often read that a good title must be eye catching. Like I said, I have no idea what that actually means, but there must be some reason I choose the books I do (excluding word of mouth, I mean). Let’s take a random look at some of the titles sitting beside me on the shelf as I type.

“Grave Peril” by Jim Butcher
“Summer Knight” by Jim Butcher
“Absoption” by John Meaney
“Confessional” by Jack Higgins
“The Map” by T. S. Learner.
“Surface Detail” by Iain M. Banks

Quite a mixture, but in fairness that’s two people’s worth of taste. What however about these titles, those authors, or those covers made us choose them.

I’ll level with you. The Jim Butcher novels (part of the wonderful Dresden Files series. Go read it if you like a good urban fantasy PI romp) are on the shelf because the first book in the series caught my eye, so let’s start there instead.

“Storm Front.

Well I don’t know about you guys but that raises questions. That should probably be the first point (Settle on a title for your novel that raises questions. What does that mean? Who/What is that? What’s the significance?). It can’t just be about bad weather systems because I know the book is about a wizard PI, so what’s the real story? The title of this book was in fact a large reason I kept reading. I sped through it, absolution DYING to find out what significance storms had. The pay off didn’t disappoint.

Lets add to the above underlined point. Don’t forget the pay off if you use your titles to inspire mystery.

Now three books on that list illustrate the second point I want to make – Though it ties some what into the first two points. “Confessional”, “The Map”, and “Absorption”. Not only do those titles inspire in me the need to read on to find out the significance, but damn, they’re pithy right? I can’t speak for the entire genre fiction market but I don’t half love a good one[ish] word title. Be short, sweet and too the point (briefness).

The Map – What map?
Confessional – Assuming this is a thriller, what’s gone down? Who’s confessing to what?
Absorption – well I must admit that this one stumps me. I’m not even sure it hits the reason within that book, but let’s be fair to John. It’s a trilogy. There in lays its appeal to me. I want to keep reading, perhaps I’ll even re-read in order to work out it’s significance, who knows?

The last novel on the list, Iain Bank’s “Surface Detail” doesn’t raise a whole lot of questions, it could be more pithy, I’m not even sure of the pay off… Never the less I loved it. Why?

Simply? It speaks volumes of the book’s theme. It doesn’t try to hit you around the head with the main protagonist’s struggles, but what it does do is tie together each of the books disparate plot lines. It completes the theme even. With out it… I would have read a wonderful Space Opera none-the-less but it wouldn’t have had that same impact. With out it (to use an awkward metaphor) I would have had a beautifully poignant description of an apple, but would I know it was an apple?

So here’s the final point I want to make regarding titles. Having trouble naming your opus? Think about your theme (and you should have one, otherwise what’s your focus?) Try and come up with a phrase that sums this up, better yet, one that “completes the thought”

The title of my Urban Fantasy book, you might already know, is Faebound.

I like it, because for me, it’s brief, it’s significant in bucket loads and it raises one important question that’s central to this novel/novels (what does Faebound mean?). Mind you, I’m not at all sure how or when it came to me. Inspiration strikes like that – sometimes you have to write the whole damn manuscript then try and pain-steakingly figure out the title, and sometimes it comes to you before you write the thing.

And sometimes some where in between πŸ˜‰

If you find yourself stuck for a title, have a look at your book shelf. What kind of words appear most often? Why do you find yourself drawn to those combinations? It won’t be the same thing that draws me to books. Not even close. But that leads neatly to my last point.

You’ll never please everyone. The only thing we writers can do is write what we love. And that counts for titles too.

Happy writing.


2 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Title?

  1. When you posted "Storm Front" I immediately thought of John Ringo's novel "Gust Front" which I think is a slightly better title.I agree that titles should be shorter as opposed to longer, and hint as to the contents of the novel. Those, in conjunction with the covers can be effective in convincing a potential reader it might be worth their time to explore further.For the record, the titles of my two works are "Flank Hawk" and "Blood Sword." They are part of the First Civilization's Legacy Series. And with a series, there should be some consistency with titles, similar to how Steven Brust has done it with his Vlad Taltos series. The working title for my next novel is "Soul Forge". In the end, we'll see what my publisher things.Good topic and thoughts in this post. πŸ™‚

  2. Jc Farnham says:

    The thing with Storm Front, which made me choose it for this posted in fact, is that it's pretty well in keeping with the plot. I don't want to drop any/many spoilers (mind you the title does that for you). Suffice to say the Dresden Files is a fun series, and I'll always recommend it for fans of urban fantasy who are getting sick and tired of the paranormal romance angle hah.Consistency is a good one. But I do think rather than have similar words between titles in the series its more worth thinking about playing on a *theme* you know? Like what you've done with First Civilization's for that matter!

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