Writerly Stuff: How to Title

How do you pick a title for a story or that novel you slaved over or are presently creating?  Do you pick something that sound marketable or eye catching?  Do you roll the dice between options or pick a card, any card.  May I make a couple of recommendations?  Mind you, I am not saying mine is the only way, the best way, or even necessarily the right way.  I am only offering these thought as something to consider.

1.         My strongest recommendation would be to boil the story or novel down to the essence of what it is about.  I have heard it said that if an author is not able to say what the story is about in a sentence or two (especially for novels) they are not ready to market the work.  My thought here is when you get to those couple of sentences, keep boiling.  What we want is a few or a couple of words that allude to the essence of the story.

What is your book about?  Pride and Prejudice.  It’s about Great Expectations.  It’s about Mice and Men, an Odyssey, The Sound of Music or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Okay, the last two are a bit of a stretch and a bit esoteric, but I think the idea here is clear.  If a story can be boiled enough to get to the essence in a few short words, that may be the best title.

2.         Failing that (recognizing that not all stories are so easily boiled) my second recommendation would be to consider the key motivation for the story.  What drives this plot?  What is the key and can it be named? 

What is your book about?  It is called The Scarlet Letter.  It’s called Moby Dick.  It’s called The Pearl, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Murder on the Orient Express, The Time Machine.  It is called The Lord of the Rings.  Okay, the last one refers more to a character, though it mentions the rings, but the character idea will have to wait.

3.         Before turning to character names, I would suggest looking at the setting.  This may work best when the setting is unusual or unique.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a great example, as is The War of the Worlds.  Here, you have Jungle Book, The House at Pooh Corner, Casablanca.  With these titles, the potential reader has no introduction to what the story is about or what the motivation for the characters might be, but it can intrigue, as I said, if the setting is different and maybe mysterious or suggestive.  Thus we have a Tale of Two Cities, The Ox bow Incident, The Lost Horizons, The Old Man and the Sea and more recently, The Road or The Shack.

I have had a story in the back of my mind for years.  It is a Noah’s Ark story as it might play out on another world with an alien species.  For years I called it Prem after what I imagined would be the name of the main character.  This year I have begun to work on the novel, and as I have started, I stepped up the ladder in naming.  I have turned from the character name to look at the setting.  The current working title is “Not This Earth.”

4.         When all else fails, I suggest looking at the characters themselves, and unless there is an imperative to do otherwise (perhaps as in Moby Dick), really only the main characters should be considered.  Thus we have Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Oliver, Robinson Crusoe, Dracula and Frankenstein.  Note that all of these names are unusual enough to stand out from the crowd.  That does not mean a common name won’t work just as well, though when using a common name I recommend enhancing that name in some way.  Consider The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

This use of names in the naming process need not be confined to a single character when the group may do.  Swiss Family Robinson comes to mind as does The Three Musketeers.  Likewise, the actual name of the character need not be center stage.  I mentioned Lord of the Rings.  Consider also Lord of the Flies, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Last of the Mohicans. 

Finally, you might try enhancing the name with some indication of story direction if possible, such as Gulliver’s Travels or Pathfinder.  Generally, though, I feel it is not the best option to simply use the name of the main character for your title since it gives the reader the least clues about what they can expect and so it is the least likely to draw people into the story.  This is true even if your character is named Ebenezer Scrooge – and you will notice, Dickens did not name the story with that name.

Of course, not all titles fit neatly into these four ideas.  One of the best might satisfy the first (essence) and last (name) ideas at the same time.  That would be “Psycho.”  So, how do you name your stories and books?  I hope these thoughts help.

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