Whether you start with your story title or add it at the end, finding the right title can make or break your story. A title serves as an invitation to the reader. Let’s explore some tips to help you find a strong one.
Set Up Expectations
Because your title is an invitation to the reader, it helps set up your reader’s expectations. Make sure your title fits the genre. For example, if you title a story “The Scorpio Galaxy,” your reader is not going to envision an Amish romance. That’s an extreme example, of course, but the principle holds. Really think hard about what a reader would expect. They don’t have months of familiarity with your work, like you do. They might arrive at your story knowing nothing but the title.
You likely won’t be surprised to discover that Gina Heron’s Buried Beneath the Lies is a family drama about hoarding and reality television. Or that Meagan Lucas’s Songbirds and Stray Dogs is a gritty and yet uplifting southern story.
Your title should tend more toward unique than ubiquitous. While it’s true titles aren’t copyrighted, publishers will shy away from repeat titles, and you don’t want to create reader confusion.
Heather Newton has a new novel out called The Puppeteer’s Daughters. Doesn’t that title make you want to flip immediately to the first page? What if she’d called it Daughters or The Family?
Evoke the Story World
By non-generic, I think what I mean is evocative. As a reader and writer, I prefer titles that conjure up a story world or a somewhat specific mental image, as opposed to a vague idea. Instead of “The Secret History,” consider, “The Forgotten Cottage.” Instead of “What We Knew,” what about “Signs & Wonders”?
The North Carolina Literary Review recently published a short story of mine called “The Virgin of Guadalupe’s Moon.” The story is about Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s honeymoon in Acapulco. I could’ve titled it “The Honeymooners” or something like that. But I spent an embarrassing amount of time (really, I struggled with it…) trying to think of a non-generic title that related to the story and might intrigue the reader.
Jon Sealy’s novel title The Edge of America immediately sets the reader on edge in a delicious, tension-filled way, signaling that the story involves characters who are teetering somewhere between dark and light.
Not too Specific
You can be too specific or “on the nose,” however. My second novel, The Good Luck Stone, was originally The Disappearance of Audrey Thorpe. It was too specific, maybe hard to remember, and kind of sounded like a middle grade mystery. An editor suggested I think of a new title and that was excellent advice.
On a related note, you might want to avoid titles that state the obvious or seem to answer a question that’s better left open as the reader explores your story.
Easy to Understand
A good title will not confuse your reader. Try to pick titles that are easy to understand and pronounce. My first novel was originally titled Hold String and Fly, but I received feedback that people didn’t understand it. We changed it to Maranatha Road. And let me be honest, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t use this title. “Maranatha,” while common enough in western North Carolina, is a somewhat unusual word and some people don’t know how to pronounce it. You definitely want people to feel comfortable pronouncing your title so that they can share it far and wide.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to title your work, I recommend Shuly Cawood’s online class, “Make Your Titles Do More of the Heavy Lifting.” You can find more information here: https://www.shulycawood.com/appearances