I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which besides being a great book, has an excellent title, the sort of beautiful and meaningful title that I aspire to write one day. Thinking about why this is such a great title and why I love it led me to thinking about titles in general.
Titles are hard. A good title, like All the Light We Cannot See, is meaningful to the work and also an intriguing, catchy, or beautiful phrase. Something else I like to see in titles is multiple meanings. The phrase “all the light we cannot see” literally refers to the fact that visible light is only a fraction of the light on the electromagnetic spectrum, a fact quoted by a professor who greatly inspired one of the main characters as a child, but it is also meaningful in a figurative sense, because the other main character is blind and the book takes place in France and Germany in World War II, a very “dark” time.
Obviously, it’s hard to hit all of these characteristics in a title at once. Most of the time, I don’t, but there are a few basic tricks I’ve found to finding a good title—if not a fabulous one—as well as things I always try to consider.
Use intriguing words:
Some words are intriguing, attention-grabbing, or else just plain cool. Some words are not. I want to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Throne of Glass not because I know anything about them but because their titles are awesome and full of intriguing words. “Daughter,” “smoke,” and “bone” are good title words. So are “Throne” and “glass.” On the other hand, some words, like “sludge” or “washing machine,” are not as cool and will probably not produce the same ring in a title (The Washing Machine of Doom just sounds silly). There isn’t really a formula to which words work and which words don’t for titles, and sometimes, a word that you don’t think is intriguing can work well with a word that is, as in the chapter title “An Excess of Phlegm” in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. You sort of just have to try out phrases and see how they sound.
Important names, places, and ideas:
This one is pretty obvious. Look through the story for important names, places, images, themes, and ideas. These are all important to your story, which makes them great title fodder. Look at phrases around these important bits and see if you see anything catchy and meaningful. Any phrases that you already repeat deliberately throughout the story are good for this as well, but be careful, because sometimes direct title drops—even if you used the phrase before you decided it was going to be your title—can sometimes come off as corny or groan-worthy.
Pithy one-word titles have been the style recently. Sometimes I like them, and sometimes I use them myself, but most of the time, I feel like it’s hard to capture a lot of meaning or be all that intriguing with just one word.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can have a really long title, like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is a fabulous book, or Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), which I really want to read. The thing about long titles, though, is they’re not for everything. A long title usually indicates a specific tone that the story will have. Usually, when I try to come up with a title, I shoot for something with three to five words, a phrase that’s easy to remember, intriguing, and not a mouthful.
This is more useful if you’re planning to write a series of books or have a series of related chapter titles, but sometimes it’s fun to have related titles for projects. The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Each book is titled Harry Potter and the… Another great example is the Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare—City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, etc. It’s not always necessary to repeat exact words to create a feeling of consistency, either. Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small books have the thematically linked titles of the stages of Kel’s training to become a knight.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to choosing titles than just this. You can have alliterative or rhyming titles—as long as their not too cutesy—like Etiquette and Espionage or The Eyre Affair. You can have really convoluted titles that only tell a little bit about the book, or really simple titles that speak volumes. You can title chapters or not title chapters (but that’s another discussion entirely).
Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I’ll change the title three or four times before I’m satisfied—if I’m ever satisfied. Or sometimes I’ll hit on a title right away that’s perfect. No matter what, I always try to have a working title from the moment I start a draft, because having a title that expresses to me what the story’s about helps guide me and keep me focused as I write. That title might change when I finish the first draft and revise the story, or it might still work, in which I’ll keep it. Another thing I do is jot down phrases I see or hear around that might be good titles, even if I don’t have story ideas for them. Even if I don’t ever use them, it’s an interesting exercise to see what’s appealing to me and what’s not.
There are definitely things to look for in a good title and things to avoid, but there’s almost never a definitive right or wrong answer, because there’s also a lot of personal taste involved. For example, take the title of this post. I was going for obvious and a little ironic, but I’m not totally sure I nailed it, and actually I think it’s kind of a stupid title, and I could have done better. But someone else might think it’s hilarious. Or maybe before I post this I’ll come up with a fabulous, funny title in the middle of the night or in the shower—where all the best thinking happens—and I’ll change it, and this whole paragraph just won’t exist.
Or maybe not.