Working Titles Again

Having blogged about titles once before, I’ll do my best to cover different ground.  As a good title is crucial to a book’s identity, finding one I’m happy with is something that I’ve always struggled with. I’ll list perhaps twenty or thirty over the course of writing a book, some, many in fact, are absolute stinkers, but I’ll put them on the list anyway in case they lead to a better idea later or, perhaps, just to build the list for the sake of building the list.

Here are some of the more common approaches to creating a title:

one-word titles

Every so often a one-word title comes along that isn’t a cliché. Twilight pulled it off. After success with the first book, all other celestial nouns became fair game for the sequels.  In most cases, though, it’s not easy to be original in a single word.

article + noun approach

Usually it’s the definite article (the) but sometimes the indefinite article (a, an) get a run out. These titles have a simple classic feel and summarise succinctly but, like one-word titles, most of them were taken a long time ago, think The Stranger, The Plague (both Camus) or The Player and The Hustler in the movies.  (Not that being a classic stops some people from using it again, mind, but that’s a different story.) One that slipped through the net until Darren Aronofsky grabbed it in 2008 was The Wrestler, which proves it’s still possible to be bold, succinct and original; although, unless your main character is a lepidopterist, it’s probably been taken, and some might say leave it alone even if it hasn’t.

article (optional) + adjective + noun

Tossing in an adjective opens up limitless combinations. The adjective will add unique colour but it absolutely must be an evocative adjective, in fact the more jarring/ironic/offbeat the better. The Stranger transformed into The Turquoise Stranger etc.

article (optional) + multiple adjectives + noun

Tom Wolfe’s work of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test probably started this one and now they’re ubiquitous. It’s an extension of the single adjective approach that can be taken as far as you’re prepared to let the font shrink on your front cover, typeface and space being the only limitations.

verb + preposition + subject

Waiting forlooking fordriving over… These kind of verbs (gerunds) convey some kind of state, thought, action or emotion in progress and that can give a sense of dynamism — if that’s what you’re shooting for.

Character name + _______

This can link two names, Romeo and Juliet, or the main character plus a phrase, Danny, The Champion of the World, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Underpants. Some say keep away from names in a title as the reader has no investment in the character at that point, and the few precious words you have to play with have been wasted. Obviously, those titles (and countless others) disprove that theory, yet it’s probably worth noting that a quirky name will help to characterise and hook more than ‘John Smith’ would. (They say that JK Rowling struggled to find a publisher for her first book for a while because of the name in the title; however, that might just be potterbollocks).

Taking a poetic sounding fragment from the book and making it the title

Such as, The Catcher in the Rye. Incidentally, I’ve always felt that the title came to Salinger before he’d written the passage where it’s mentioned. I have absolutely no proof of that; it’s just my gut instinct — besides, even if it was, it doesn’t matter. Plucking a fragment from the text lends itself to literary fiction more than other genres, and it requires something that evokes the theme and/or character that has the necessary punch when the fragment is wrenched from its sentence.

Ultimately, how you get to your title or how long it takes don’t matter, as long as it’s the right one. Nineteen Eighty-Four came quite close to being called ‘The Last Man in Europe’ (and ‘1980’ or ‘1982’ according to the Penguin Classic introduction). Would Nineteen Eighty-Two have been so bad? Maybe not. It seems that the titles of big books take on new proportions after publication.

Next week, Andrew Oberg  demonstrates his  ‘Obergotron’ — a steam-powered device for plotting bestsellers that leaves the busy writer more time to bar brawl or take their cat to the vet for an ear flush and a worming.

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  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I make lists of possibilities too, though not nearly as extensive as yours sound like they are. Ultimately, one will just “feel right” to me, as lame as that sounds to say. But then, who knows the essence of your book better than you do?

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I agree. One will just feel right. I don’t really follow the approaches above when trying to think of one, but most titles will fall into of those categories (after scrutiny) even if I’m not.

    I don’t take titles seriously on the first draft. My list is for getting the bad ones out of the way more than anything. Now I’m on the second draft and two have presented themselves, so I’ll see if they’re still in the frame in a few month’s time.

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