First impressions for books are the title and book cover. We’ll discuss covers in a future post and tackle titling here.
When I was 11, I was casting around for something to read. I felt like something watery, and my parents kept a well-stocked library. It was either Robinson Crusoe (again), Kon-Tiki or Jaws.
Guess which I picked?
Great White, here I come! But why?
My parents kept their books on shelves, like anyone else. All I saw were the spines and Jaws grabbed me. The title raised a question in my mind. Kon-Tiki did as well, but the word “jaws” was both common, crunchy (it feels good to say), and bizarre. I got to Kon-Tiki eventually, but not until Captain Brody killed himself a shark.
Ideally, you want your title to drop hooks in the reader’s mind that echoes for a while. Single-word titles are strong, especially if it’s powerfully linked to your story. Pilot Fish wouldn’t have been quite so catchy for Benchley’s book, but it might serve for a children’s book.
At the same time, many words can work too, if they stand as a strong brand for the book. How to Swim with Sharks without Being Eaten Alive! was originally titled Better Management or something forgettable like that. I think “Alive” could have been dropped because it seems to add one too many beats, but this book flew off the shelves and still does. The title sizzles.
What works? Who knows, really, but some good ideas are:
- One-word, crunchy titles. Jaws, Bold,
- A few words that relate uniquely to your story. The Trouble with Bees, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
- Names of People or Places – Peyton Place, Ben-Hur, Jurassic Park
- Metaphors – These can be silly, like How to Swim… or more serious; So Many Mountains; Which Ones to Climb? Or more ethereal Gone with the Wind.
- Questions that resonate – Do Angels Still Fall? If it’s a question that resonates, that makes a reader say, “Yeah, what about that?” then you’ve succeeded.
- Stuffy titles – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or The Battle of Carbon Falls Creek Wherein Aliens Invade. They have a sense of whimsy about them.
Titles that don’t work (or just might anyway)
- Unpronounceable words or names. Mahfwpufl, or Myxyzptlc
- Titles with no link at all to the story.
- Boring titles.
The goal is for it to be memorable, clever, funny/whimsical or serious (it should match the tone of the book), thought-provoking, and sticky.
If you have a series of books with a strong series name: The Dead of Night, then your title should be one or two words, Dragonfly or Leatherwings.
What about chapter titles? For most mainstream fiction, just numbers will do, but for non-fiction books or younger audiences, naming your chapters is a good idea. They should be predictive for non-fiction, and predictive and clever for other books.
Go to Amazon and look through the books. How many titles actually strike you? The title mixed with cover can be compelling but what about the title by itself?
Titling is an art you should master!