This post is an update to one published March 8, 2018.
Titles and first lines are two of the hardest things to come up with in writing. Titles can be the easiest things to come up with, and other times a good title evades us for months on end.
There’s a good reason for that as well. Titles, like your first line, have to hook the reader. Unlike first lines, your title stands alone, without the potential for readers to try just one or two more lines. Your title has to catch your reader’s attention in a sea of other disconnected titles. Essentially, a title is your most basic (and important) piece of marketing. After all, you can’t tell your friends about a book with a title, so how can your readers?
A title has three main functions. Firstly, it catches attention. This is it’s first and foremost function—again, not unlike the first line. The idea is to give your reader enough of a hook that they’re at least interested enough to read the blurb.
Secondly, a title helps your readers predict the content. Don’t think this is a bad thing either—if you’re looking for a light historical fiction romance, you’re not going to be looking at titles that indicate a lot of heartache and blood, or even titles that indicate you’re dealing with the factual accounting of Henry VIII’s sordid affairs.
Third and final, your title is an identifier for your story. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Going back a little earlier…you can’t recommend a book without a title, how can your readers? A title identifies your book, and gives you a basic place to start your marketing.
The good news is that your title may end up changing up until publication. This might occur during edits, or as you’re working on marketing materials. Depending on the route you go to publication, it might happen because of something your editor or early readers suggest. While searching for a title, it might help to have a working title on hand—that is, something you plan on changing later.
Your main character’s name might very well step up for the title, a la Jane Eyre or Harry Potter. There are entire series which are known by the name of the main character. Think Anita Blake or Sherlock Holmes. This also applies to locations. Think something like Bridge to Terabithia.
Alternately, theme might give you a good place to look. Think not only Sense and Sensibility or Eat Pray Love but also things like the Fast and Furious franchise. This gives you a chance to pinpoint what your story should feel like and what it’s going to focus on.
Playing off theme, you can also use key or symbolic items. This might give you something like Blood and Chocolate. It’s an easy option that can help you earmark other points of metaphor in the story. If your story features a MacGuffin, you’ve got a ready-made option here.
Finally, use your main concept as your title. Star Wars springs to mind easily. The basic idea behind the story has a lot of unexpected power. Concept titles tap into that.
Remember that you can mix and match titles as well. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does just that: uses both the main character’s name, and the main concept. Try mixing and matching a couple of different options.
As an exercise: To give yourself a little material to work with, try to come up with a list of at least ten different titles (hint, come up with two from each of the above categories, plus another two mix-and-match options). Following that, try to find ten lines or phrases in your manuscript that resonate with the story as a whole. You should end up with roughly twenty titles, all of which you can now tweak and play with.