Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.
Is anybody else out there a terrible titler?
Naming pieces of writing is one of the hardest parts of the process for me. To give you an idea of just how hard, I offer this confession: in college I wrote a swath of poems as various incarnations of “Untitled” (I was even known to title poems in a series “Untitled 1,” “Untitled 2,” “Untitled 3″…). Pretty bad, I know.
What is it about titling that’s so difficult? Personally, I have a hard time being succinct, and it’s even more difficult to achieve that in a title that’s simultaneously meaningful, catchy, and relevant to the work as a whole.
Since I have some writing I’ve been putting off submitting for publication in large part because I can’t for the life of me figure out what to call it, I decided it was time to stage an intervention. For myself. I took a long look at titles and identified some major types in hopes that doing so would help me divine how great authors handle such a tricky task. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it’s a start.
Types of Titles
Direct Character Descriptor
Some titles refer quite specifically to a particular character; many offer a key description whose significance emerges through reading.
Consider using it if: A particular characteristic of your protagonist drives the plot.
- The Girl With The Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
- The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards
- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
Indirect Character Descriptor
These titles refer to characters as well, but in more general terms or using only a descriptor as opposed to a specific pronoun.
Consider using it if: Something that happens to, or embodies, your protagonist is ultimately more significant than his or her separate identity.
- The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
- The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
Titles that indicate setting can be poetic or plain, mysterious or straightforward; what unites them is their shift in focus from person to place.
Consider using it if: Where or When your story takes place drives the plot.
- House of Sand and Fog, by Andres Dubus
- Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
- The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomon
There’s just something about an -ing verb; these titles feel active, assertive, and suggestive of an exciting read.
Consider using it if: An action characters perform drives the plot.
- Running the Rift, by Naomi Benarom
- Bringing Up Bebé, by Pamela Druckerman
- Losing Clementine, by Ashley Ream
Sometimes that’s all it takes. These titles stand out because of their spare clarity; just make sure the word you choose counts for a lot.
Consider using it if: You want to pack a punch and can condense the essence of your work into a single noun or descriptor.
Poetic language doesn’t just belong in poems. A pretty, descriptive title attracts readers.
Consider using it if: Your story is rich in metaphor, you want to call attention to a particular detail, or you want to create a mystical effect.
- Tomorrow River, by Lesley Kagen
- Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mahew
- Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi
Surprising or Strange
There’s just enough oddness in these titles to make you want to read further and figure out what in the world is going on.
Consider using it if: A contradiction in your work can be easily summed up.
- The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney
- Holy Fools, by Joanne Harris
- What is the What, by Dave Eggers
These titles suggest you’re already in the middle of the action. They’re unfinished; they suggest a question. Which, of course, is a great reason to read.
Consider using it if: An important message in your work can also be expressed through concrete action.
Saying With A Twist
Titles that relay something people are used to hearing, but not quite, create immediate intrigue.
Consider using it if: You’re witty and can figure out how to reappropriate a cliché or common phrase to reflect a theme in your work.
- Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
- A Spoonful of Promises, by T. Susan Chang
These titles create a distinct image, concrete or poetic, that elaborates on a key noun.
Consider using it if: When you sum up your work, it’s not a single word, but an action, phrase, or description that comes to mind.
- A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
- The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker
- A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson
Particularly common in non-fiction works, two-part titles are generally made up of an interesting hook and a longer, relatively detailed explanation of exactly what the work entails.
Consider using it if: A catch-phrase isn’t enough; you want to be creative but also explain exactly what readers will encounter.
- It Sucked and then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita, by Heather B. Armstrong (Phrase + Explanation)
- Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected, by Kelle Hampton (Single Word + Explanation)
- Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood: The Good, The Bad, and the Scary, by Jill Smokler (Short Plot Description + Explanation)
- Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller (Twist + Explanation)
How To Title
How do you decide on a title for your work? Do you have any strategies that work particularly well?