17 Fiction Writing Experts Reveal Their Secrets to Good Story Titles

17 Fiction Writing Experts Reveal Their Secrets to Good Story Titles

6 Awesome Comments

You tried to avoid it like the plague, but there is no escape anymore.

Yes, you tried to push it aside, delay it, pretend it was just an afterthought. You told yourself you would easily find a solution once hell freezes over.

But now the inevitable is upon you. You just finished your story, and you desperately need a good title for it. There is no way out (*cue high-noon music and Charles Bronson stepping into the saloon…*).

To be real, you don’t just need a good title, you need an excellent one. The title will be the first impression potential readers and buyers get from your story, and you want to make sure it turns them on, not off… You have about 2-6 words to impress and intrigue them.

It’s almost like having to decide on a name for your baby.

Seriously, you must settle on one name, and then your brainchild will have to run under that label for the rest of its (shelf-)life…?

At least for naming your son or daughter, a billion useful websites with a billion suggestions exist, and all of your options are “right” (unless you name them “Summer Clearance Sale” or something, which is not cool). By contrast, for your story you need something specific, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to get it wrong.

But fear no more.

I asked 17 fiction writing experts for advice on how to choose good story titles. Below you will find a treasure chest of small, but essential nuggets of wisdom you can fall back on when you need help.

This post contains condensed knowledge from some of the greatest minds of story coaching, served to you in tasty, small bites that are super easy to digest. They tackle the topic “good story titles” from every possible angle.

I suggest you print these quotes in wallpaper format to decorate your living room. But even in case you want them smaller, it’s a good idea to download this post in PDF format and keep the sheets handy, so you can take a look every now and then and let the advice trickle down into your unconscious:

If you like a quote, make sure to check out the influencer’s website. All of these people are fantastic, that’s why I invited them in the first place. You will discover some excellent wisdom on their pages.

Click on the links below to go directly to the expert:

Kristen LambSuzannah WindsorJanice HardyAnne R. AllenLinda SegerShawn CoyneElizabeth S. CraigKristen Kieffer | Becca Puglisi

Mythic ScribesIndies UnlimitedFaye KirwinGlen LongTomi AdeyemiBryan CollinsE.M WelshAnthony Metivier

How to find really good story titles

Kristen Lamb PhotoKristen Lamb

Kristen Lamb is the author of the top resource for author branding in the digital age, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. Kristen has helped writers of all levels, from unpublished green peas to NY Times bestselling big fish, connect to their readers and grow their relationship into a long-term fan base. She is the C.E.O. of WANA International and the founder of WANATribe, the social network for writers. Find her blog here.

My advice on a great title? I like to tell my story idea to friends and colleagues and ask them. Often outsiders are better at titles than we are. They have emotional distance we lack.

Beyond that, the title needs to be short. Long titles are easier to forget and remember the cover needs to look good in a thumbnail. Also no cryptic titles. If we have to read the book to “get” the title? No. The title needs to also evoke emotion.

I once helped a writer with a dystopian fiction and in her world the religious zealots who ruled controlled all the food. They also ritually burned human sacrifices to shut down protest.

Originally she was bent on calling the book “Seeds” because how the protagonist eventually wins is by returning the ability to grow crops back to the people. But to me this was “meh” and “Seeds” wouldn’t make me pick it off a shelf. I suggested “Firelands” because the title was edgier and more emotive. It was a title that posited a question I needed answered.

 

Suzannah Windsor Photo

Suzannah Windsor

Suzannah Windsor’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Geist, The Writer, Saw Palm, Sou’wester, Grist, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com and a current recipient of two writing grants from the Ontario Arts Council.

In my experience, a great title works on more than one level but is also subtle. I once sent a literary journal a story self-indulgently titled “A Terrible Beauty,” a phrase taken from William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916.” The poem is mentioned in the story, and the title worked on a thematic level as well. I thought it was a great choice.

Well, the journal loved my story, minus one aspect: they wanted me to change the title—to be more subtle. Less melodramatic. They suggested “Perfect,” instead, which still worked on more than one level but did so more subtly than my beloved “A Terrible Beauty.” We ran with the title change, and I learned a valuable writing lesson from the experience.

 

Janice Hardy PhotoJanice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and of multiple books on writing like  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, and Understanding Show Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

Look for words or phrases that instantly bring an image or concept to mind. As soon as you hear them, you can imagine what the story is going to be about.

They might use a strange combination of words that don’t really go together (such as The Book Thief or The Hunger Games), or suggest an intriguing idea (The Forest of Hands and Teeth or How to Train Your Dragon), or create a play on words from something in pop culture (Married With Zombies or The Outlaw Demon Wails). The title itself is evocative even if you haven’t read the book.

Try to avoid titles you need to read the book to understand–those can feel too vague to grab attention. Of course, a title that’s evocative on its own, then means something deeper after you’ve read the story, is perfection.

 

Anne R. Allen PhotoAnne R. Allen

Anne R. Allen is an award-winning blogger and the author of ten books including the bestselling Camilla Randall comedy-mystery series. She’s the co-author, with Amazon #1 seller Catherine Ryan Hyde of How to be a Writer in the E-Age.

 

Titles are tough. Think of all the famous books that started out with dismal titles, like Trimalchio in West Egg, which became The Great Gatsby and FF which became The Ice Storm. Even the greats had trouble with them.

How do I personally come up with a title?

I have a journal full of lines of poetry and quotes I think might make possible titles. Often one is my inspiration to start a new piece. But the quote almost never ends up as the final title.

That’s because once a story is finished, I usually realize it’s about something else entirely. So I write a new title, sometimes a phrase from the work. Then I Google it and discover 27 other authors have beat me to it. (Always Google your title.) So I change a few words. Agonize. Change a few more. Sometimes I go back to the journal and find the perfect title has been there all along.

 

Linda Seger PhotoLinda Seger

Dr. Linda Seger created the script consulting profession in 1981 and is one of the world’s foremost script consultants. Her client list includes Ray Bradbury, Roland Emmerich and Academy Award winners like Peter Jackson. She is the author of nine books on screenwriting, including the bestselling Making A Good Script Great. Linda has lectured on screenwriting in 33 countries and has consulted on over 2000 scripts, 50 produced feature films and 35 produced television projects.

Here are some ideas for titles.

– Short titles work well.

– If a title has a verb, rather than a noun, all the better.

– If a title has a sense of the theme – that works well.

– If the words of the title resonate- and make us think of something else, that’s great.

 

Shawn Coyne PhotoShawn Coyne

Shawn Coyne has 25+ years of experience working with bestselling authors like Steven Pressfield, Bill Murray, David Mamet and Robert McKee. The books he has worked on have made a combined gross revenue of more than $150 million in North America alone. He blogs about The Story Grid, his CT Scan-like system that analyzes your complete story and tells you what is working and what isn’t.

Titles require thematic authenticity.  They must also make a promise to the lovers of the Genre you have chosen.  So, JAWS is a great title because it establishes that the story is a man against nature action adventure that will relentlessly surprise and shock you.  PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a great title because it concerns the two possible fatal flaws of its lead love story protagonists.  DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a great title because it lets the listener know what they are in for the second they hit play on Springsteen’s third album.

Oftentimes a title can wag the dog.  Kris Kristofferson’s classic ME AND BOBBY MCGEE began as just a title, a challenge to the young songwriter to write a tune about an alliteratively named young woman who worked at his record company.  Her heard the title and thought of a story about the road and lovers parting.

Take your title very seriously and make sure that it is Genre-specific…remember that titles are the first introduction to your work to your potential audience.  They are the warm smile and promise of an attractive stranger.  Take the time to get them right and they will pay very large dividends.

 

Elizabeth S. Craig PhotoElizabeth S. Craig

Elizabeth writes the Southern Quilting mysteries and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She curates links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig that are later shared in the free search engine WritersKB.com.

For some genres, titles are essential for branding purposes. One immediate indicator of a cozy mystery (my own genre) is a punning title. A couple of examples of this principle are evident in my own series, which uses quilting as a series hook: “Quilt or Innocence” and “Knot What it Seams.”

For inspiration with title creation, I like to use the website Phrase HQ and input different search terms to get a sense of what might work. Then I check online retailers to ensure the title hasn’t already been grabbed by other cozy mystery writers.

 

Kristen Kieffer PhotoKristen Kieffer

Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She’s Novel. She’s made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course! Kristen’s works include the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.

Choosing your book’s title is kind of like deciding on a name for your child. There are a lot of great possibilities, but choose one that’s just a bit too odd or out-of-place and your book baby will be the butt of jokes for all of eternity. Yikes! So how can you avoid that risk? Simple: run every title idea you brainstorm by a host of readers. They’ll let you know whether you’ve made a huge mistake!

 

Becca Puglisi PhotoBecca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to story titles, I like the ones that are catchy but also convey something about the story. I especially appreciate it when the title is a poignant phrase that comes directly out of the story. I love that Aha! moment that happens when I come across it as I’m reading the book and I can almost hear the puzzle pieces clicking into place.

One thing I would warn authors about is to be careful with one-word titles. They’re catchy and I know many that have been successful. But as a reader, they don’t tell me much about the story; I have to rely as much on the cover to get a feel for what the book’s about. Also, when I search for these titles on Goodreads or at the library, they’re often buried in a half-page long list of results, making it harder for me to find the book I’m looking for.

 

Mythic Scribes LogoMythic Scribes

Nils Ödlund is a Staff Writer at Mythic Scribes, which is a fantasy writing community.  He lives in Cork, Ireland, and is a writing and fantasy enthusiast.  You can connect with him and the rest of the Mythic Scribes community at mythicscribes.com.

 

So, titles? But it’s not just about titles these days, is it? When was the last time that all you saw of a story was only the title itself, without the cover image, or without it being mentioned by someone else?
I like my titles to be closely related to the stories they name. Enar’s Vacation is about Enar, and about what happened to him on his vacation. Emma’s Story is about what actually happened to Emma. It’s her version of the story, and it doesn’t really matter that I never wrote anyone else’s version of it.
They’re simple titles. They hold no mysteries and make no promises – on the surface. I like that. I want to put the mystery in the cover image: a path disappearing in shadows, a forest covered in snow. I want images with a hidden meaning, and a really obvious title.

 

Indies Unlimited LogoIndies Unlimited

Indies Unlimited offers the best free resources for writers at every stage of their careers. Established in 2011, IU helps independent authors to hone their writing craft as well as learn how to publish and promote their work. Indies Unlimited is a safe place where members of the independent author community can share and exchange ideas, knowledge, expertise, and frustrations. All for free.

At Indies Unlimited, a site that was listed by Publishers Weekly as being one of the top six blogs for authors, there seems to be as many different techniques for developing great titles as there are staff writers (and there are 17).

Melissa Bowersock says, “I give my books a working title while I’m writing them, but something else invariably suggests itself when it’s done. I actually have no idea how I come to the titles I do, but they always seem to fit,” while Lynne Cantwell’s method is more defined: “I use a recurring motif, or a word that embodies the underlying theme. The titles I’m happiest with relate to several things in the book at once, and I’ve been known to dive into a thesaurus to find words with the right nuance.”

Laurie Boris is inclined to “…pluck a line of dialogue or a recurring motif from the story,” and Melinda Clayton always researches “a title before I start writing. I try to find something that incorporates the story but also includes a little bit of mystery. My favorite way to find a title is to search through relevant poems or Bible verses.”

Admin K. S. “Kat” Brooks tends to be all over the map, usually following Melissa Bowersock’s lead, but has also used the techniques mentioned by Laurie Boris and Lynne Cantwell. “It all depends on the story, and if it’s part of a series. For my Cover Me series, the word ‘Night’ is in every title.”

 

Faye Kirwin PhotoFaye Kirwin

Faye Kirwin is a writer with a passion for words, minds and tea. She blogs over at Writerology, where she applies the science of psychology to the art of storytelling and teaches authors how to build powerful writing habits.

How can you find the perfect title for your story? By discovering your story’s heart.

Start by creating three columns in your notebook labelled ‘Names’, ‘Meaningful’, ‘Story’. Next, read through your manuscript, jotting down words/phrases that fall under those categories, like so:

  • The ‘Names’ column is for the names of any important characters, places or things in the story. (For example, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White.)
  • The ‘Meaningful’ column is for any words/phrases that are significant in the story. (For example, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin and The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan.)
  • The ‘Story’ column is for any themes, goals or motivations in the story. (For example, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn.)

After that, play around with the words/phrases you’ve jotted down and create a list of possible titles that reflects your story’s heart. Then all that’s left is to pick the one that speaks to your heart.

 

Glen Long Photo

Glen Long

Glen is now managing editor (a.k.a. Chief Content Monkey) at Smart Blogger. He still exercises his comedy muscles by writing the occasional best man speech. When he’s not creating or editing content he’s probably watching Nordic Noir. Why not say hello to him on Twitter?

I used to be a comedy writer, pitching ideas for television, radio and online series to the BBC and other broadcasters, and I became obsessed with titles. Producers receive hundreds of pitches and your title is their first exposure to your idea.

Good comedy titles are:

  • evocative of the central idea
  • attention-grabbing and memorable
  • humorous or clever

The British sitcom “Peep Show” has an awesome title. Firstly, it alludes to the point-of-view filming style used by the series. Then there’s the cheeky double meaning – a “peep show” is a form of erotic entertainment. And it’s short too – just two words.

My favourite of my own titles was created for a BBC online series whose premise was that colourful Tudor King Henry VIII is alive and well, and obsessed with social media. The title “Henry 8.0” perfectly captured the idea that this historical character had been transported into the digital age.

 

Tomi Adeyemi PhotoTomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi is a young adult fantasy writer and creative writing coach who teaches other writers how to unlock their story’s potential, master their plots, and finish their first drafts at tomiadeyemi.com. She is currently obsessed with shrimp ceviche and Avatar (the last airbender, not the blue people.)

I am constantly on the lookout for any collection of words that makes my eyes light up and my ears sparkle. It doesn’t matter if it comes from another book, a commercial, or a random piece of conversation – if it sounds good and unique I make it my title!

 

 

Bryan Collins PhotoBryan Collins

Bryan Collins is a writing coach who helps writers become more creative and productive. His free email course will help you launch your writing career and Become a Writer Today.

 

A good title should grab the reader’s attention. When it comes to fiction, you can use a metaphor like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Or you can invoke intrigue like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Or you could even use a line of dialogue from your book like: Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.

Now if you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to go one step further and see what titles other writers in your genre are using and then figure out how you can find a title that does all of the above but which readers will find when they search Amazon for your book. So how to do that?

Well, you could test titles with beta readers, run a poll using  service like PickFu or even set up three different Facebook ads and see which one performs best.

 

E M Walsh PhotoE. M. Welsh

E. M. Welsh believes in giving every story the form it deserves. She has written several screenplays, short plays, short stories, poems, a novel and a sample of a video game script. Profit from her experience as a multi-medium storyteller by reading her blog, and explore her storytelling society.

Coming up with titles has always been difficult for me. Most of my stories are labeled “Untitled project #x” until I can think of something, which often isn’t until I am forced to. I believe that I cannot name something until I know what it is, so titles are always the last thing I create.

However, when I can finally come up with a good title, it is the result of two things:

First, I ask myself what my story is about. I try to define it as simply as I can because I think all great titles do that whether we realize it or not. Usually I fail at finding a title here.

So second, I read my story and look for lines I’ve written that I believe embody this definition of mine. I took this idea from my favorite playwrights, like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, whose titles are unforgettable and stand alone as pieces of art. I like it because then readers will encounter this line in my story and see it as some sort of key to understanding, at least I hope so.

 

Anthony Metivier PhotoAnthony Metivier

Dr. Anthony Metivier is a writer, writing coach, magician, blogger and bestselling author of a number of books on memory improvement. He is also the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st Century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, dreams, names, music, poetry and much more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

To come up with great story titles, I allow myself to list as many exaggerated, extreme, useless and downright dumb ones as I possibly can. By completely giving up the hope of coming up with a great one, I can brain dump with joy and not worry about it.

I’ve listed some real groaners with glee just to get the juices rolling throughout my career: The Bad Memory TerminatorDr. PregnantThe Mars Worm, The Psychological Travails of Verne T. Hopper.

Sometimes you have to lay cool titles aside to make way for those that better fit the bill. I still love Anatomizing Regan for an unreleased serial killer novel, and the borrow from Shakespeare doesn’t hurt its cool factor. But the replacement title works much better and makes the work a more serious contender for success. But no matter what, you get further faster if you just start getting potential candidates down on paper and don’t allow yourself to get precious about it.

—–

That’s it for today, seventeen nuggets of wisdom to help you choose your story title. If you ever get to a dead end while looking for a title, whip out this post, and read through a couple of the quotes for inspiration. You can download all of them as handy PDF here (you will also get my e-book about “44 Key Questions” to test your story):

Whenever you re-read these quotes, at least some advice should inspire your wicked subconscious and ignite your imagination. Soon after, you will find your slick, cool, meaningful and awe-inspiring title. And when possible readers take a look at that title… they will already be intrigued in two seconds flat, and without even having read a single sentence of yours!

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6 Comments

  1. Chris

    It’s fascinating seeing how others do it. To maintain a ‘brand identity’ I use a single word title for each story, with a sub title that’s always a quote from one of my characters (which the reader will hopefully spot).

    The main title usually suggests itself during the writing or editing process… In one case, ‘Sharknose’, I didn’t like it at first, as I thought it didn’t fit with others in the series, so I searched in vain for another, but eventually I gave in because ‘Sharknose’ referred to the Ferrari 156 Grand Prix car, which was nicknamed the Sharknose, and is at the core of the novel. It just fitted better than anything else, and now I love it.

    I’ll then look for a suitable intriguing quote from a character (In Sharknose’s case it was “Seeing that toyshop has just reminded me of something”).

    This system came from the first novel I wrote: TRANSACTIONS : “The gift wrapped special selection box of assorted tarts” and its sequel, ‘COINCIDENCES’ : “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t quite right about this”.

    To date we have, including two short e-book prequels:

    ‘RECREATION’ : “Yes, you do look a little familiar…” –
    ‘PAYBACK’ : “Does that make me a bad person?” –
    TRANSACTIONS : “The gift wrapped special selection box of assorted tarts” – ‘COINCIDENCES’ : “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t quite right about this”. –
    ‘RETRIBUTIONS’ : “Don’t tell me it’s another bloody e-mail”
    – ‘SHARKNOSE’ : “Seeing that toyshop has just reminded me of something”
    – ‘DEADWEIGHT’ : “Not too bad at all for a big girl” –
    ‘DISRESPECTED’ : “Nothing gets you a little respect like the muzzle of a gun”.
    (The first four are already published, with the rest waiting in the wings).

    What I find far more difficult is choosing chapter titles, which my publisher likes to use. Now there’s a real task, ’cos each book has a load of them to find.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Thanks for your interesting take on titles, Chris! You mention two things that weren’t talked about in the post: Branding with titles and subtitles.

      Your subtitles look like incomplete comments on your titles, or the other way around. In the unexpressed area in between them the novel is happening. Or so I imagine. Anyways, this combination of titles/subtitles leaves a lot of room for imagination, and that’s what writing is all about.

  2. Pingback: Great Story Titles: 17 Fiction Writing Experts Reveal Their Secrets | Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons

    1. Alex
      Alex

      When you press that red button, you can download two PDFs:

      1. This blog post, with just the 17 contributions in PDF format

      2. My free e-book “44 Key Questions” to test your story.

      These two are not directly related to each other, except that they are both about fiction writing. And if you are already on the e-mail list and thus already have the free e-book, you will just get to the download of the first PDF.

  3. Pingback: 10 Tips for choosing the right book titles for novels or nonfiction.

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