Monday, September 20, 2010

Naming Your Story by Katherine Swarts

A Half Dozen Hints for Creating Titles

 Your story is populated with unforgettable characters, your plot flows smoothly from beginning to end, and you’ve edited the manuscript thoroughly. Now it’s ready for a publisher….
…or does it still need a cherry on the sundae? What about your title?
An intriguing “working title” can be the first step in impressing editors with your creativity. So never settle for the vague or prosaic.
A good title must be:
1. Concise. Titles such as The Strange Events Surrounding the Catastrophe of Mr. Thomas Pettigrew’s Financial Ruin belong only in melodrama, if there. One to five words is the best length.
2. Genre-appropriate. The Most Dangerous Game” hints at suspense and threat, which is what readers find in Richard Connell’s short story by that name. The title would fizzle in a humorous romance where the greatest danger is squirting ketchup on a boyfriend. Few readers appreciate being misled into expecting an entirely different kind of story.
So choose title words that fit what you’re writing:
For a mystery: burglar, shot, puzzle
For a romance: kiss, love, roses
For a Western: prairie, outlaw, cattle drive
For general literature, use words descriptive of mood: “heavy” words (gloom, pressing) for grim stories, lighthearted words (sunshine, pastel) for humorous ones.
3. Relevant. If your story is called “A Bouquet of Red Carnations,” you’d better have those flowers, or their analogy, not only in your plot but prominent in your plot. Readers feel cheated if they can’t see a title’s relevance—and no one buys a second product from a cheat.
This doesn’t mean the relevance always has to be obvious from the beginning. You can hold off bringing the carnations onstage until the climax, if they have an obvious reason for being there and a significant role in the resolution. But never take a passing detail and stick it in the title for show.
4. Intriguing. Don’t emphasize a prominent-but-prosaic motif, either. If you call your story “Painting the Porch,” editors may wonder whether this is a short story or a how-to article. “On the Porch” is better, making people wonder what or who is on the porch. “Breakup on the Porch” is more intriguing yet: who or what broke up, and how?
Will the title you’re considering make readers ask questions, questions you answer in your story?
5. Tantalizing. And are the title words inherently sensual, humorous, or mysterious? Ann sounds dull, even if it is the protagonist’s name. Destiny or Charity is more intriguing, just as Tortoiseshell Cat is more interesting than The Cat. Would The Falcon have drawn half the interest The Maltese Falcon did?
If none of your characters or objects have inherently tantalizing names, try writing a brief synopsis or putting your story’s theme into words, then scanning the results for interesting keywords.
6. Memorable. Finally, titles should be easy to remember. Suppose someone says, “You should read this great book; it’s called… it’s called… I forget what it’s called.” Would you bother doing extensive research to find the title? Neither will most of your potential readers.
Besides using the points above, you can make titles memorable by alluding to a well-known saying or story (Stitch in Time, Cross My Heart, Romeo’s Secret), or through alliteration (“Jason’s Blue Brand”) or rhyme (Give Me a Hand, Man). Be careful, though; if you get too cute, not even picture book publishers will be favorably impressed.
When you finally have the perfect title, your story or book will be ready for a publisher—but how to find one? That's a question for another day.


  1. Hmmmm..... since my stories revolve around boats, the titles are boat names. BAD LATITUDE boat, I mean book 1, & RECKLESS ENDEAVOR book 2. Each title (& boat name) is related to the theme. In the BL, my protagonist (a kid) is given quite a bit of latitude by his grandparents. In the 2nd, their hunt (it's a sequel) takes them through some dicey situations, making their endeavor somewhat reckless. Obviously I've lost my mind ....

  2. Obviously, you're a terrific storyteller. Dave! The stories sound fascinating. And you definitely know your titles.

  3. Greetings Joylene,
    Excellent advice by your guest blogger, Katherine.
    I can certainly relate to this and the importance of titles. I sometimes try to do a play on words in my titles, which hopefully, gives a bit of a clue as to what my story is about. Also, I seem to have a tendency to use alliteration.
    Oh by the way, did you know I've been to 'Yahk N'Back'?
    Have a good week.
    With respect, Gary.

  4. All good things to keep in mind when choosing a title, Joylene. Tietles are pretty important. They can make us curious or bore us. They can scream out buy me or else make us walk away.

    Sometmes a title jumps out at us and we know immediately that it fits. I love it when that happens. :)

  5. Hi Gary. You're one up on me; I've never even heard of Yahk N'Back. But I do know this little biker bar outside of Little Fort. We happened to stop their last summer when the place was full. My ears have never recovered. LOL. Great place. I'll look to see what the name is.

  6. Hmmm... Something to think about while I'm painting today. At this point, I have no idea what to call my book.

  7. What great advice to help all of us come up with titles for our work. Some of my working titles are dull, but I try to come up with one that is fitting when it goes to the publisher or for a pitch. Now I have more to think about for options.

    Well done!

  8. Hi Vicki. What about "Mercadier"? Anybody who reads that period will know who he was. Oh, you're thinking the one with Philip? Hmm. I dunno.

  9. Hi Laura. I still think "The Garden of Good and Evil" is one of the best. Oh, and "To Kill a Mockingbird" is another. Yes, titles, if done right can stay with you for years. Who could forget "War and Peace"?

  10. Hi Dianne. I have the opposite problem, I can't give up my working titles. It's like pulling teeth. But I keep them with the idea that my editor will change them to something more appropriate. So, nobody was more surprised when she said she liked "Broken But Not Dead". It's also the name of a unmemorable punk band.

  11. Covers affect me more than titles when picking up a book, but titles do run a close second! Thanks for this look at what to consider in choosing one.

    In my own mss I have a tendency to start with one-word working titles, assuming that an agent or publisher will want to change them anyway. But I wonder if the right title would have any influence on an agent's interest in a particular submission. Hmmm... maybe I'd better have another look at mine! :)

  12. Hi Carol. I'm no expert in choosing titles. Mine do tend to be a big indication of what I've written. IE Kiss of the Assassin, Dead Witness, Broken But Not Dead. But how I choose them is still a mystery to me. They just come from that dark place in my brain. I think sometimes simple is an excellent choice. Like "Harry Potter" for instance.

  13. I enjoyed this!

    I love coming up with titles, and found these thoughts intriguing and VERY useful.

    Thank you for sharing this guest and her advice!

  14. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment, Carol. Very much appreciated.

  15. Those who said that editors and agents frequently change titles are right on the mark--but I've never known one who didn't appreciate a good suggestion anyway. Of course, if you're publishing your own work, the title you choose is the one the book gets stuck with. (Incidentally, if self-publishing means you're responsible for cover design as well as title and text, the title-words visual itself can either enhance or detract from the "all-of-a-piece" image conveyed by title, text, and graphics.)

    Nonfiction and anthologies have an advantage over fiction in that there's room for a subtitle and thus a little additional explanation; still, the subtitles do well to also stick to the six principles. Example combined with shameless plug: right now, I'm self-publishing a poetry book with the title Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts. The subtitle isn't too long, clearly states what the book's about, and uses words with inherent emotional impact (along with a little alliteration).

  16. Thanks for the help naming my stories, Katherine. It would like raising a child without naming him at birth; I can't imagine. Or worse, having him turn 20 and you suddenly realize you gave him the wrong name. Hmm. I think there's a plot in there somewhere.

    Anyway, your effort and help is greatly appreciated.

  17. Great post....Gary in England sent me to visit you after we were chatting about an email I got yesterday. I submitted a pb to a publisher. They sent me a rejection letting me know that they already had a book with a similar theme under contract. (bummer). A few minutes later they sent me another email saying they really liked the title. It gave me great hope that I should continue to query this pb. :) I changed the title and revised this ms many many times....this is the first time I've had more than a form rejection....Titles obviously matter!

  18. Sharon, frame that letter. It's those moments of hope that should be cherished. I would definitely keep them on your rolodex. They took the time to say something positive, which means they saw something of value in what you've written. Bravo!

  19. Amazing post! Thank you, Joylene and Katherine. I think coming up with titles is quite possibly the hardest part of writing. I am terrible at it. This was a great list of things to think about. I'm bookmarking. :)

  20. Music to my ears, Adriana. Thanks!


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