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.