Finding the right title for your novel can be difficult. Many writers miss the mark, naming their book something obscure for the sake of creating interest even if that obscure something has nothing to do with the story, e.g. Twilight.
Titles are headings. That means they should reflect the content. When you read a heading, you form expectations, and if you don’t fulfil your readers’ expectations, you leave them dissatisfied. Dissatisfied readers lead to bad reviews, damaged sales and loss of credibility. That’s a lot to lose for trying to sound edgy and mysterious. This isn’t to say that you need to give your novel an essay title, just make sure the title you do give it is a proper heading for the content.
Having trouble? Well, your book is full of stuff that’s relevant to your book. Start your search for your title in these six places.
If your novel is character-driven, i.e. the plot is driven by the protagonist’s choices or focuses on their development, and your character has a unique or otherwise interesting name, then name your book after them. In Coraline by Neil Gaiman, the title character is dissatisfied with her life. The plot of the story is centred around Coraline being offered a different, more satisfying life, only to find that this new life is much more horrible and she must overcome the antagonist to get her old life back, i.e. it’s about her growth, and the consequences of the story are mostly internal.
The plot of Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz has more external factors in play than Coraline and consequences that affect characters on a wider scale; however, you couldn’t replace the title character, Odd, with anyone else and still have the same story. His choices and actions drive the battle against the antagonists and his internal conflicts are hefty obstacles. While the climax impacts the entire town, it’s Odd’s emotional resolution that the novel focuses on.
But don’t think you can’t spice this type of title up a bit. Sometimes names don’t have a ring to them. Sometimes there’s simply a better option, a moniker you can use for your character that makes the book sound more enticing while still making it clear what drives the story. The gunslinger in The Gunslinger by Stephen King and the hobbit in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien both have names, but their real names don’t incite as much wonder and mystery as these titles.
Where the story focuses on who or what the antagonist is rather than the conflict they create, they could inspire the name of your book, e.g. Stephen King’s It.
Some stories focus on setting. According to a threatening message written on a wall in Hogwarts, the conflict of the second Harry Potter novel by J.K. Rowling arises from the Chamber of Secrets, a location, and ultimately the setting of the climax. For most of the story, the setting isn’t a destination but a source of mystery that the protagonist tries to unravel: where is the Chamber of Secrets? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? What’s in the Chamber of Secrets?
Sometimes the story doesn’t focus on a setting, but the opportunities the setting creates. The setting of the Rot and Ruin in Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry isn’t as important as the fact that the setting itself exists. The Rot and Ruin, being the vast lawless and zombie-infested land beyond the fences of post-zombie apocalypse settlements, creates opportunities for conflict to arise. Additionally, the setting becomes an obstacle in overcoming that conflict that its existence allowed.
If your book is more plot-driven than character-driven, has an antagonistic force rather than a villain and unfolds in an unremarkable setting, why not title your book after your character’s goal? Choose a verb or gerund that best describes the core action behind achieving the goal (e.g. saving, hunting, finding) and the object of that action and you’ve got a potential title. Titles like this don’t have to spoil the novel either; careful word choice can headline your story while sounding enticing and not giving too much away. The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King follows this formula as the plot is all about drawing out three particular characters to form the protagonist’s new fellowship.
A book can be named after a character who isn’t the protagonist or antagonist as, obviously, there are more character roles available in a story. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is about the protagonist seeking redemption for his selfish and cowardly inaction when he witnessed his friend, a kite runner, being assaulted, as well as his inability to deal with the resulting feelings, which destroyed their relationship. The pivotal moment in the story occurred while the friend was retrieving a kite, and the feelings of the narrator that drive the story are all about this kite runner.
Character goals often involve an object and plots are often driven by objects. Where an object is an important plot device, it can be used as the title of the book. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is about Voldemort trying to acquire the Philosopher’s Stone to achieve immortality; Harry’s goal is to stop him.
This strategy is, I think, most often found in fantasy series, as these are the journey stories that are about the characters trying to get somewhere. Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda is a middle-grade series about characters collecting gems to form a belt that will banish the antagonist that has invaded their land. The first seven books focus on the retrieval of one gem per book, each of which is hidden in a dangerous and terrifying place. The gems are the object of the characters’ goal, but that goal is the same from book to book and they can’t all have the same title. The books are, instead, named after the dangerous and terrifying place of the book-specific gem the characters are to find, titles that are much more appealing.
Perhaps you want your book to be remembered for its theme, in which case you should name your book after it. A recurring theme in the book One Door away from Heaven by Dean Koontz is being on the brink of death. One of the main characters is an alien with a mission to save mankind before we destroy ourselves. He himself is hunted by more aliens who want to stop him from achieving his goal. Another character knows that her own death, at the hands of her murderous step-father, is not far away. “One door away from Heaven” is a pretty succinct way to describe good people being so close to death.
5. Central conflict/plot
The most important element of your novel could simply be what happens, e.g. the Hunger Games in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The series branches out to be about more than just the Games but in this book, the main focus is Katniss surviving the Games.
Maybe no one component of your story is the most important. Maybe the crux of your novel is a combination of things. You could try to find a way to combine them to come up with your title.
You might have noticed that all but the last of these things are fundamental narrative elements. Seems like common sense, right? These narrative elements form the core of your story. At least one of them is bound to be the most important element. Decide which things are the most important, the things you want to draw your readers’ attention to, the things you want them to remember your book for, and play around with different ways to express those things until you’ve got a title you’re happy with.
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