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What makes a great title?

Blog

The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

What makes a great title?

Stephen Arnott

A bad title won’t necessarily ruin the chances of a good book, but with so much competition out there it pays to come up with something that will work as hard as possible to attract readers.

A peruse of book and movie titles reveals that they fall into three broad categories:

  • Descriptive
  • Abstract
  • Cryptic

Descriptive titles

These give you enough information to take a good guess at the subject and genre:

Dumb and Dumber. Unlikely to be about mutes or mimes, so we guess this story involves a pair of idiots; one more idiotic than the other. This strongly suggests a comedy.

An American Werewolf in London. Does what it says, and it’s obviously a horror story. You can’t get much clearer.

The Drowned World. A world…that’s drowned. Sounds futuristic/apocalyptic.

 

Abstract titles

Vague and largely meaningless, but attention grabbing:

There Will Be Blood. Featuring blood obviously, but beyond that we’re none the wiser. Could it be about vampires?

The Big Sleep. No clues here unless we know this phrase is a euphemism for death; even then we’re left wondering.

Blazing Saddles. Something about horse racing?

 

Cryptic titles

Seemingly abstract titles whose meanings become clearer once we get into the story.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The meaning is a mystery till we find out that these labels describe the protagonists.

The Day of the Jackal. Possibly a wildlife documentary, but ‘Jackal’ turns out to be the codename of an assassin.

Blade Runner. Means nothing till we discover that this is futuristic slang for a replicant hunter. (This title was originally more prosaic – before it was acquired for the movie it had belonged to another story, one about a man selling illegal surgical equipment.)

 

The secret of success

However we might like to categorise these titles, they all share something in common – they’re effective. They engage our interest and encourage us to find out more.

Based on the above, we can theorise that an effective title will include one or both of the following elements:

  • At least one evocative, powerful word that arouses interest and excitement: Blood, Ugly, Jackal, Blade, Blazing, Werewolf, Trouble…
  • An intriguing combination of words: Big/Sleep, Blazing/Saddles, Blade/Runner, Day/Jackal, Big/Little...

To test this idea, let’s look at the following New York Times bestsellers of 2014 (listed in no particular order). How many power words and intriguing combinations can you find? I'll see you at the other end...

All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr

Act of War Brad Thor

Words of Radiance Brandon Sanderson

The Target David Baldacci

The Book of Life Deborah Harkness

Written in My Own Heart's Blood Diana Gabaldon

Outlander Diana Gabaldon

Fifty Shades of Grey E. L. James

The One and Only Emily Giffin

Gone Girl Gillian Flynn

Missing You Harlan Coben

Festive in Death J. D. Robb

The King J. R. Ward

Unlucky 13 James Patterson

Invisible James Patterson

Hope to Die James Patterson

Private L.A. James Patterson and Mark Sullivan

Top Secret Twenty-One Janet Evanovich

Skin Game Jim Butcher

Sycamore Row John Grisham

Gray Mountain John Grisham

Edge of Eternity Ken Follett

Personal Lee Child

Big Little Lies Liane Moriarty

The Long Way Home Louise Penny

The Burning Room Michael Connelly

Concealed in Death Nora Roberts

Shadow Spell Nora Roberts

The Collector Nora Roberts

Blood Magick Nora Roberts

Night Broken Patricia Briggs

The Chance Robyn Carr

Mr. Mercedes Stephen King

Revival Stephen King

Carnal Curiosity Stuart Woods

The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd

Captivated by You Sylvia Day

Of the 37 titles above, only 10 (by my estimation) fail to live up to our theory. However, most of these are by famous authors whose main draw will be their name. In these cases a fancy title would probably a distraction. These sub-par titles include The Target, The King and Sycamore Row, together with the one-word-wonders Invisible, Revival and Personal. I also don’t think much of Unlucky 13. What’s that about? Lucky 13 would be more of a twist. Then again, the title has me thinking about it. Perhaps that’s what they were aiming for.

In any event, I say the theory stands. Power words and intriguing combinations will do your book a lot of favours.

Title tips

Keep it real

Your title shouldn’t make promises your story can’t keep. If you write a novel about a middle-aged woodworker having a romance with the widow of his best friend, the text would have to be pretty raunchy to live up to a title like Nails of Lust. Something more romantic, such as Carpentry With Flowers, might be more appropriate.

Make it memorable

Titles comprising short, simple, everyday words are the easiest to recall. It helps if they also conjure up a mental image to cement it in the memory.

Make it pronounceable

Word of mouth recommendations work best when people can actually pronounce a title. Avoid tongue-twisters and hard-to-say words. Could you get your mouth around Mrs Miller’s Pteridomania, Renumbered Remunerations or The Kyrgiakis Convention?

Will it fit on a cover?

A book cover offers limited space for a designer. How would a title like Incontrovertible Spiritualization appear? If both words were put on the same line, the text would have to be tiny or very compressed to make it fit. Putting the words on separate lines does something to solve the problem, but creates an ugly slab of verbiage. This is another reason to choose short simple words — they offer a designer more creative freedom in how they’re arranged.

Is it similar to anything else?

Do a little research and see if your title, or something like it, has already been used. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but if someone else has used a similar name there’s a possibility of confusion. Did you enjoy Hard Times? Which one? The Dickens novel or the bare-knuckle boxing movie starring Charles Bronson?

And before you go, why not try out one of the brilliantly titled books below? Leofric: Sacrifice is a short murder mystery that's just £0.99/$0.99 on Amazon and free on Smashwords...

(For more title fun, try the Random Book Title Generator, and you can find some real weirdly-great titles at Bored Panda.)