How to Find Titles for Novels

Never underestimate the importance of great novel titles. They matter artistically and, perhaps more importantly, they matter commercially.

The perfect title of a novel is both artistic and commercial.

Never mind what is printed inside the covers of books - the titles printed on the outside can make the world of difference. They can make the difference between...

  • a book that captures the public imagination and shoots up the bestseller lists, and...
  • a book that falls flat on its face and is never heard from again.

Some novelists need a title before they begin to write - without one, they have no sense of destination. Others are happy to wait until the writing is finished (when titles are arguably much easier to find) and make do with a "working title" in the meantime.

The choice is yours.

I should say here that titles, along with book jacket designs, are things which publishing houses view as belonging more to the sales department than the creative one.

I will leave it to you to decide whether that is right or wrong, but don't be surprised if you are asked to change the title after the novel is accepted.

But whether you have to later change your novel's title or not is immaterial right now - you need to come up with the best name for the book you can before you even submit a manuscript to a publisher.

Whether you decide to name your baby early on or wait until you have written it to give it a name, this information will be here to help.

Where Do Titles Come From?

The reason I said above that titles are easier to find after the novel is written is that you then have all of the raw material in front of you in black and white - it is simply a question of sorting through it, searching for hidden diamonds.

The best way to do this is methodically, using the sources I have set out below. As you do it, be sure to make a note of every potential title that occurs to you.

  • Sometimes the perfect name leaps out at you and your search is complete.
  • More often, you will have to live with them for a while, carrying them around in your head, before one edges ahead of all the other candidates.

Here, then, are the potential sources for great novel titles...

1. The Central Character

If most novels are about one character above all the others, it makes sense to name the book after them.

This is less common now than it used to be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a lot of novels took the form of disguised biographies or autobiographies, but it is certainly one to consider.

You can simply use the character's full name as the novel title:

  • Oliver Twist
  • Jane Eyre
  • Lolita

You can use their name plus one or two other words:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Morgan's Passing
  • Bridget Jones's Diary

Or you can use not their name but a "label" which describes them:

  • The English Patient
  • The Accidental Tourist
  • The Bonesetter's Daughter

2. The Setting

I don't just mean the town or city in which the novel is set, but key locations within that community - the name of the central character's house or business, for example, or the street in which they live.

Here are some examples:

  • Middlemarch
  • Brick Lane
  • Lake Wobegon Days
  • The Old Curiosity Shop
  • Jamaica Inn
  • The Beach

3. The Plot

The story itself can be a great source of titles - in particular, the object of the central character's overall quest. The following titles all refer to what the character wants:

  • The Hunt for Red October
  • A Suitable Boy
  • Searching for Caleb

4. The Theme

All good novels have a theme - or some "message" about the human condition - and novel titles can simply state this theme directly:

  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Great Expectations
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Alternatively, they can refer to a concrete object or image which symbolizes the theme:

  • The Bell Jar
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Cider House Rules

It is even possible to take a famous quotation, perhaps from Shakespeare or the Bible - one which is thematically relevant to your fiction - and use a fragment from it for your title. (Here, you would probably want to reproduce the full quotation at the novel's beginning.)

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Far From the Madding Crowd

5. The Novel Overall

It isn't always easy or even possible to summarize the contents of an entire novel in a few words. Where you can, though, they can make for great titles:

  • About a Boy
  • A Month in the Country
  • The World According to Garp
  • The Poseidon Adventure

What Makes a Good Title?

"The title of a novel is part of the text - the first part of it, in fact - and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader's attention."
- David Lodge

So we have dealt with the sources for novel titles. The next step is to talk about what makes for a good novel title.

Actually, this is very simple. There are three criteria you should use, all of which boil down to good old common sense...

1. Is the Title Relevant?

It seems obvious to say it, but don't stick a name on the outside of the cover if it has little to do with what is inside the cover. Don't call your novel The Old Curiosity Shop if most of the action takes place elsewhere. Don't name your novel after a character who is not central.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is beginners giving their novels those arty-sounding titles - The Alchemy of Desire, The Solitude of Prime Numbers - but for the contents to fail to live up to the name.

If your novel is ultra insightful and philosophical - literary fiction, in other words - then fine. If it is more of a straightforward crime novel, say, a fancy-sounding title can actually sound pretentious.

Also, make sure that the title is appropriate to the genre.

It is impossible for me to go through every single genre of fiction and talk about typical titles within each one. The easiest thing is for you to take a trip to a bookstore and study the titles of novels within your chosen field. Then try to come up with a title of your own which is both appropriate to the category but still manages to somehow stand out from the crowd.

2. Is the Title Brief?

If in doubt, prefer the brief to the lengthy. But also beware of being too brief. 2- or 3-word titles are usually the best. Although, as always, rules are meant to be broken - if your 8-word title works, go with it.

But, still, brevity is best. If you have a long title you have fallen in love with, try as hard as you can to whittle it down. Stephen King once wrote a short story with 6-word title. When it was made into a movie, the title was (quite rightly) cut to 3 words. The titles were:

  • Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
  • The Shawshank Redemption

3. Is the Title Concrete?

In other words, does the title conjure up a tangible image or an abstract one? Always prefer the tangible.

  • Searching for Love is vague and woolly.
  • Searching for Alice is specific (we immediately want to know who Alice is, who is searching for her, why she went missing, and whether she will be found).

Breaking the Rules

If a novel title works, it works, whether it sticks to the "rules" or not. As a matter of fact, I'll go further and say that a quirky or unusual or offbeat title can not only "work" - sometimes it can send sales into the stratosphere.

I am not saying that the novels below are not all great books, because they are; I just wonder whether they would have been quite so successful with more pedestrian titles:

  • I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe
  • Life: A User's Manual
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If you can come up with a title like one of those, you might just have found the keys to the vault. Equally, you might have just found a disaster.