Hello, everyone! Welcome back to my feature “How to Write the Perfect Novel”. The last few weeks in this series, I’ve covered Diction, Characters, and the ever-nagging question, “Is my book even good?” This week, I want to talk about an obviously crucial but often tricky concept: the title of your book.
How does one come up with an amazing title?
I asked myself that very question late last night, into the wee hours of this morning. I was grappling with a title of a secret writing project I’ve been working on for years. The plotline is already completely put together; but for literally years I’ve been struggling to come up with a proper title. So last night, I decided to tackle this issue. I asked myself the question, where do most titles come from?
- It could be the name of a character. Obvious examples are the Harry Potters books (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has the name of the main character clearly in the title) or The Great Gatsby (clearly titled after Jay Gatsby, whom the novel centers around).
- It could be one defining word. What immediately comes to mind is the Divergent series, because Divergent (which means “differing or deviating”) is what the main character is classified as, because she cannot fit into (or diverges from) any one class of society.
- It could be a play on words or pun. A great example of this are the titles of The Gallagher Girl series, which include Cross My Heart, Hope to Spy and Only the Good Spy Young and Don’t Judge a Girl By Her Cover. These titles are cliches or common phrases changed slightly to reflect the series’ plot about spies.
- It could be obvious and concise. My title I chose for my book, The Last Summer, is a good fit for the story because the plot is all about a girl’s last summer in her hometown. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. You already kinda know what the book will be about just by reading the title.
- It could be an alliteration. Alliteration is a great marketing technique because it’s catchy and sticks better in our memories. An example is Siren’s Song by Kiera Cass or Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis.
- It could be ironic. Using dichotomies that lie within your story can make bold titles. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton is a perfect example. By pairing opposing words together, the title strikes readers with intrigue.
- It could be a metaphor or symbol. These kinds of titles are among the most powerful because they add a layer of depth to your novel. My favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird. This title stems from a quote within the story: “You can shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” because all mockingbirds ever do is make beautiful music for people to enjoy. There is a character in the story who a mockingbird is a symbol for: the character doesn’t do anything but good for others, and yet he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit (in other words, a conviction of a good man is like shooting a mockingbird).
- It could be an allusion. These, too, are among the most powerful titles because they draw references from other literature to hint at the story’s deeper meaning. A great example is The Fault in Our Stars. This is based on a line from Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.” Within its original text, the quote means that Brutus and the others are not at the mercy of “the stars” who control their fate; that they, in fact, can take control over their lives or their destiny. However, this is used as the title of John Green’s young adult novel to express the tragedy of two teens dying of cancer who fall in love, how their current state is not of their own fault or doing but simply because it was a fault in the stars, a happenstance of existing.
Now that you understand the variety of titles, I’d like to share with you the method I figured out last night to coming up with amazing titles.
Step 1: Identify what the overarching theme or themes are for you story. Literary themes are the ideas or underlying meanings that the writer conveys throughout the story (more info on that here). Themes include abstract concepts like loyalty, courage, friendship, loss, growing up, hope, starting over, or perseverance. Consider who the main character is and what they go through in the story. Is it a coming-of-age novel? Is it a dangerous quest? How might your character change by the end of the story – do they learn to stand up for themselves? Do they befriend someone they once despised? These are all keys to recognizing your theme.
Step 2: Once you’ve identified the theme (or themes), write down what comes to mind when you think of these themes – your mental associations with these abstract ideas. It could be quotes, people, songs, historical events, concrete objects, a single word, or other literary works. For instance, when you think of friendship, what does that bring to mind? Immediately, I thought of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. Come up with at least two ideas for each theme.
Step 3: Research those things you mentally associate with your themes. If I thought of Pooh and Piglet for friendship, I might look up quotes from them. After a quick Google search, I would’ve found this:
Because of this, I might use “A Day Without You” as the title for my book centered on friendship, if it seems to aptly fit the storyline.
Let’s try it together hypothetically:
So you identify that the theme of your story is standing up for something, even when you’re the only one. Immediately what I picture is a room full of people all sitting down, and only one person standing. The only person standing appears much taller than everyone else in my mind. So here I have this mental image of one massively tall person among many diminutive others. Now hear’s the brainstorming and research part: what are tall objects that rise above shorter things? Skyscrapers? Mountains? A lone tree in a field? I like the third one, because it provides an image of stark contrast. Yes, some mountains or skyscrapers are much taller than others, but they don’t match the image in my mind of one person standing while everyone else sits. A tree that rises above a million blades of grass really matches the original comparison. Now, let’s hone in on this tree-among-grass idea: this tree has now become a symbol for the character who stands up for something when no one else does. What kind of tree would really capture the essence of the character? A willow? Willows appear visually graceful, and they sway easily in the breeze. An oak? Oaks are incredibly strong and hard, and an acorn is a symbol of growth. A pine? Pines stay green all year; they don’t change like other trees in the fall. A sequoia? Yes, aha – a sequoia! Sequoias are the world’s largest and oldest trees. They’ve been standing tall, sturdy, and unmoving for literally thousands of years. They are also evergreen, meaning they don’t change with the seasons. So here we have a tree that reflects the unchanging, unmoving, strikingly tall nature of our character. We can now come up with amazing titles using this word: “A Sequoia Among Men”, “The Lone Sequoia”, or just plain “Sequoia” are all excellent options.
So there you have it! The formula I created accidentally last night to help myself come up with titles. Isn’t it crazy?! I’d love to hear what titles you make using these suggestions – please leave them in the comments! Hope this helps.