Over a year ago, I was browsing a magazine (I don’t remember which), and near the back was a review of a book I’d never heard of. The book is called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. I didn’t read the review (I think they gave it five stars, I don’t recall), but I did add the book to my mental “to read” list immediately.
The title hit me like a freight train. It captured my attention, held it, and demanded I pick the book up.
I looked into it and discovered the book is a sequel to one with a title that’s almost as good: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It should be noted that I haven’t read either book yet (a misfortune I plan to remedy very, very soon), but regardless of how that goes for me, I think these are two of the best book titles I’ve ever seen in my life. (The author is Catherynne M. Valente, for those interested in looking these books up.)
When it comes to titles, I don’t know that I’d consider them among the most important parts of the writing process. A bad title probably won’t turn anyone away, but a good title can certainly turn a reader toward your book. For example, let’s look at two of my favorite books: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is one. It’s a great title for several reasons. To start, it has a sort of mystical feel to it. You don’t immediately know what it’s about. There are two key words in the title: “silence”, which makes me think of darkness, death, suspense, and fear. The other is “lambs”, which conjures the idea of “innocence”. So now I have to know why innocence is being silenced, which means I have to read the book (or, at the very least, the back cover).
(In case you don’t know, the book is a horror/suspense novel about a young FBI agent hunting a serial killer. The title comes into full play toward the end of the book.)
Now a second of my favorite books: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s simple, straight to the point, and honestly, tells me absolutely nothing about the story. That book could be about anything. I can guess that perhaps the titular road is symbolic and that there will be some kind of journey involved, either internal or external, but not much else. (It turns out it’s a bit of both; it’s a post-apocalyptic road novel.)
I wouldn’t say The Road is a bad title, but it’s no Silence of the Lambs. It doesn’t demand I drop what I’m doing to read the book (which is where the synopsis has to take over), but it certainly doesn’t make me turn away from the book, either.
With all of this in mind, when I choose a title for my work, more than anything else I try to find one that fits the story. Lately, I try to aim for the attention-getter, but sometimes I just can’t find one. In any case, I thought I’d give a few pointers in how to narrow down a good title, or at least a good place to start looking for one.
You’re going to want something that serves as a “bigger picture” summary of your story. (The Road nailed this one.) Bonus points if this is unique. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is a good example. The book is, at its heart, about a struggle of succession to the throne, and how many of the people involved more or less game the system. It’s also very obvious just from the title that we’re probably talking historical fantasy, and the title isn’t readily reminiscent of any other title I can think of. So it’s unique, it hints at the genre, and it summarizes the story within.
A good way to find something like that in your own work is to look for a word or term or phrase within. (Another one A Game of Thrones nailed, as the term appears twice in the book, if memory serves.) An example of this is my own book, In the Lone and Level Sands. While it’s not immediately clear from the title that the book is about zombies (though those familiar with the Shelley poem the title alludes to might think “post-apocalyptic”), the title is, in my opinion, an attention-getter. It’s also taken directly from a conversation two characters have toward the end of the book, and relates to the story pretty clearly from that context.
So, long story short, you want something that summarizes your story, hints at the genre, grabs the attention, or does all of these. A good place to look is in the work itself, in a passage of writing, a bit of dialogue, or just in the general plot. Sometimes you can find it by looking elsewhere; for example, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men does a good enough job of summarizing the story, even though the line is taken from a completely unrelated poem. (Again, my own In the Lone and Level Sands can relate.) Just make sure it’s related to your story in some way and falls under fair use; plagiarism doesn’t make for good titles.
I think a good combination to shoot for is this: Your cover should draw the reader in from afar. Your summary should make the reader have to read the book. But your title should make the reader have to read the summary. And, if your title is good enough, it just might cause a few readers to skip the summary and dive right in. Catherynne M. Valente’s titles did it for me, and I can only hope to be that good at coming up with titles in the future.
In closing, here’s a list of some of my favorite book titles and my own comments about them. Feel free to add yours in the replies.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Word for World is Forest, also by Le Guin. (No idea what either of these books are about, but I’m pretty sure they’re both in her Hain series, which I’m about halfway through.)
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. (Sounds cool, and it’s a road novel, and there’s a lot of teenage anarchy involved, so it’s a perfect fit.)
John Dies at the End and its sequel This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong. (I mean, you pretty much have to read a book with that title.)
The Drawing of the Three and The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King. (Both of these are Dark Tower novels, and both have the sort of fantastical title that captures my attention. Most of the books in that series do.)
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. (You see the title and have a pretty good idea what the book is about.)
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft. (The title is almost as creepy as the novella is. I could list almost everything Lovecraft ever wrote here, so you should probably just look up a list of his works.)
A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. (Another attention-grabber.)
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. (Another perfect title. You can guess the genre as scifi/fantasy, it draws you in, and it does a wonderful job of capturing the heart of the story.)
The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New. (This is an album and not a book, but it fits just as well.)