Titles are often one of the last pieces that falls into place when I’m working on a story. Occasionally, I’ll have a title in mind before I even start writing, but such serendipitous moments are few and far between for me. So, here are some tips and resources to help you identify your next project’s title.
Quotations and Allusions
Sometimes its better to let someone else do the heavy lifting when it comes to your story’s title. Maybe there’s a quote or literary reference floating around somewhere that perfectly encapsulates your story. Or better yet, you can commandeer one of these highbrow references and add your own spin to it by swapping in a word relevant to your story.
If you are looking for quotes, check out the searchable Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to search by author, work, or keyword.
A whole host of literary works including the Bible or Shakespeare’s plays can be found and searched over at Project Gutenberg.
And if you’re a fan of pop culture, maybe song lyrics could give you some inspiration. Lyrics.com allows you to search by artist and song title while The Music Lyrics Database also features a song full text search.
First Lines and Last Lines
In What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers the authors say “A title is the first thing a reader encounters, and the first clue to both initial meaning and final meaning of the story” (Bernays & Painter, 1990, p. 133).
If your title can harness the content of your first or last lines (or vice versa), it can go a long way to making your story resonate with your readers. So take a look at those sentences and see what you find.
James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure says to “[t]ake first lines from novels and make up a title. Dean Koontz’s Midnight begins, “Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.” What might you do with that? Perhaps something like these: She Runs by Night. The Night Runner. Runner of Darkness. Night Run,” (2004, p.39).
You can do the same thing with your last sentence. And if there’s nothing strong enough in either your first or last sentence that suggests a title, you may want to think hard about those lines and decide whether they’re doing as much as they could be.
Poignant Moments and Theme
Another place to look for title inspiration is at the climactic or emotionally resonant points of your story. Is there some image or turn of phrase that you can use as your title? What’s nice about these titles, is that I often want to keep reading, if only to figure out the intention of the title. Peace Like a River and The Left Hand of Darkness are good examples of this.
Story Subjects and Proper Nouns
This is pretty easy. Think of all the stories out there named after a character: Jane Eyre, Emma, The History of Tom Jones, Coraline, Harry Potter etc. But there are just as many stories that reference the main character of their story indirectly: Interpreter of Maladies, Wizard of Earthsea, The Windup Girl, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hobbit. Or an object the characters want: The Golden Compass or The House of Sand and Fog.
Take a look at your characters – their names and identities. Make a list of the places in your story. What are the objects or things people are searching for throughout your story?
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you may not be able to put into words what your story is about. That’s why this title business is so hard. If nothing is apparent, you can try to see what emerges when you look at the words you use most frequently.
On May 27, 2010, I came across the following on Twitter:
@4KidLit: A great use of word clouds! RT @AngelaAckerman: I bet using Wordle on your book content might yield title ideas....(PS - You should be following both already!)
And Ackerman is absolutely right. Wordle is free online tool that allows you to generate word clouds based on the frequencies of words found in your story. Simply select all and paste your text into the Wordle form and click ‘Go.’ The resulting word cloud may surprise you and lead you to new title possibilities.
Titles, particularly for commercial fiction, often provide potential readers some indication of what genre the story falls in. You should already have an idea of the other stories in your area if you are at the querying stage. But it wouldn’t hurt to take another look at their titles and see how your’s fits in. Or if you haven’t come up with a title yet, look at comparison titles and take notes.
Amazon’s Listmania or Library Thing are good resources to identify lists of works that are closely related to your story.
Journaling Woman’s recent post Title Attraction rounds up advice from blog-o-verse big wigs like C. Patrick Schulze, Rachelle Gardener, and Elizabeth Span Craig.
According to Dorchester Publishing Editor Leah Hultenschmidt, a good title will:
- Indicate the genre
- Give a sense of the tone
- Provide continuity for similar/series titles
- Intrigue the reader
Writer’s Digest’s 7 Tips to Land The Perfect Title for Your Novel offers more ways to strengthen the title of your story.
If you have any other tried and true methods for coming up with a strong title, please share. I was appalled by how many of my writing books did not address this fundamental subject!