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’s printed inside the covers. The titles printed on the outside can make all the difference between a novel that shoots up the bestseller lists… and one that falls flat on its face.
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’d recommend “naming your baby” early on, during the idea-finding stage. Here’s why…
It’s good for your motivation. When you give something a name, it always feels more real, more alive.
It’s good for the continuing development of the idea – because thinking about what to call your novel forces you to think hard about what the novel is actually about.
I should say here that titles, along with cover designs, are things that publishing houses view as belonging more to the sales department than the creative one.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s right or wrong. Just don’t be surprised if you’re asked to change the title after the novel is accepted.
Some authors are fine with making changes. Others will fight their corner hard, or else publish independently to give them full control over all aspects of their work.
But that’s for the future. Back to the matter at hand…
Whether you put a lot of effort into giving your novel a title now, or whether you just slap a working title on it and come back here later, the following information will help you make the right decision.
Where Do Novel Titles Come From?
These are things you started to think about when you brainstormed for ideas. So even if your novel is still in its infancy, you potentially already know everything you need to know to find a great title.
As you read the following suggestions and apply them to your own novel, make a note of every potential title that comes to mind…
- Sometimes the perfect name leaps out at you and your search is complete.
- More often, you’ll end up with a lengthy shortlist and will need to live with the titles for a while, carrying them around in your head until the right one edges ahead of all the other candidates.
Here, then, are the potential sources for great novel titles…
1. The Theme
All good novels have a theme. And novel titles can simply state this theme directly…
- Sense and Sensibility
- Great Expectations
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Alternatively, titles can refer to a concrete object or image which symbolizes the theme…
- The Bell Jar
- The Catcher in the Rye
- The Cider House Rules
You can even take a famous quotation that’s thematically relevant to your fiction, perhaps from Shakespeare or the Bible, and use a fragment from it for your title…
- The Grapes of Wrath
- For Whom the Bell Tolls
- Far From the Madding Crowd
2. The Main Character
If most novels are about one character above all the others (i.e. the protagonist), 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’s certainly one to consider.
You can simply use the character’s full name as the novel title…
- Oliver Twist
- Jane Eyre
You can use their name plus one or two other words…
- The Great Gatsby
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- 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
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
If you do name your novel after the thing that the main character wants, it’s best if this thing is concrete and specific, rather than abstract like “finding happiness.” (I talk more about concrete and abstract goals in the section on plotting your novel.)
4. 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…
- Brick Lane
- Lake Wobegon Days
- The Old Curiosity Shop
- Jamaica Inn
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?
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 to the plot. And so on and so forth.
I appreciate that you’re unlikely to do this. But sometimes when a great-sounding title comes to you, it’s tempting to use it even if it doesn’t quite fit.
2. Is the Title Appropriate to the Genre?
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… you know the kind of thing.
If you’re writing literary fiction, fine. If you’re writing a horror novel, say, a fancy-sounding title will not only seem pretentious, it will likely turn off fans of that genre.
How do you discover what book buyers like?
Study the novels in your chosen category, particularly the ones that sell the most copies. That will give you a very clear idea of the style of titles that readers within that category are drawn to.
The trick is to find a title which is both appropriate to the category (so you don’t turn off the buyers) but still manages to stand out from the crowd somehow.
3. Is the Title Brief?
This rule isn’t set in stone. But if in doubt, always prefer a short title to a lengthy one. Two- or three-word titles are usually best.
Needless to say, if your eight-word title works for your novel, go with it. Just err on the side of brevity if you’re at all unsure. Shorter is safer.
Stephen King once wrote a short story with a six-word title. When it was made into a movie, the title was (quite rightly) cut to three words. The titles were…
- Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
- The Shawshank Redemption
4. Is the Title Concrete?
In other words, does the title conjure up a tangible image or an abstract one? If in doubt, prefer the tangible.
- Searching for Love is vague and woolly. It’s about as terrible a novel title as you’ll ever see.
- 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” above or not. As a matter of fact, a quirky or unusual or offbeat title can not only “work” – sometimes it can send sales into the stratosphere.
I’m 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, more forgettable 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
- The Five People You Meet In Heaven
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Yes, they’re all literary or mainstream novels, so they probably wouldn’t work for genre fiction. But you get the idea…
If a novel title is eye-catching, it sets up the potential for huge sales.
If you can come up with a title as striking as one of those, you may just have found the keys to the vault. Equally, you may have found a disaster.
My best advice?
If you plan to write a whole string of novels in the same genre, your success will come from slow and steady sales across your whole body of work. So err on the side of safe titles.
If you’ve only got one novel inside you, and if it’s more literary in style, don’t play it safe. An eye-catching title may be your best shot at hitting the big time.