Creating Titles that Titillate

By DeAnn Bell

A recent Twitter poll asked readers how they chose the stories they purchased and read. Overwhelmingly, the responses were: 1) the title, 2) the cover, 3) the book blurb, and finally a dip into the prose if a reader was still feeling undecided. Your title is the front door to your writing and it is important that this door be open. Besides basics of title creation such as make it pronounceable, memorable, and not humiliating to utter in normal conversation, the art of book titles requires a solid understanding of your intended audience. Before you do any kind of querying or market research, seriously consider who you are writing for because knowing that information is like the secret knock of the title making process. It tells you what questions or subjects are likely to perk the interest of the type of reader who will eventually become a fan.

Titles should provide the reader with an initial question. That question invites the reader to view the cover for the answer and then flip your novel over to read the book blurb. Noel Carrol in his paper “Narrative Closure” posits the idea that readers organize stories through a series of narrative questions. Delaying the answers to those questions creates tension and answering those questions provides closure. Take, for instance, the sentence below:

Jocelyn sat on a bench holding three stones.

The first question that typically comes to mind is Why is she holding three stones? Followed by Who is Jocelyn, and finally, Where is this bench? By adding, taking away, and rearranging information, the writer wets the reader’s appetite for certain answers.

EX: Jocelyn sat on a bench in the middle of the highway holding three stones.
First narrative question: Why is there a bench in the middle of the highway?
EX: Jocelyn picked up three stones and sat on a bench.
First narrative question: Who is Jocelyn?

By creating titles that cause a reader to stop and question, you make the first move towards finding your audience. There is a fine balance here between being too mysterious and being too obvious which is best tread when you know who you are attempting to intrigue. For instance The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware poses two questions, who is the woman and what is cabin 10? “The” as a definite article creates a different expectation than “A” would. This is because A woman in cabin 10 makes gender rather than the place or person a focus. The writer plays with expectations of isolation through the word “Cabin” and with the anonymity of hotel rooms through the use of numbering. It also uses a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Room 101 which raises reader expectations of fear or torture. These themes and questions are reinforced by the cover design.

Think really hard before you publish a work with its working title. You know the one I mean, that title you picked in two seconds in order to save your document? Your cover art, title and blurb have to work together. If even one of those items is speaking a different language, then you lessen the impact of all three. As a writer, I am aware of how attached we become to working titles but we often forget that we chose that title before we knew what the story was going to be about. It is the ghost of an idea of a story, and like another person’s holiday photos, this title often means nothing to a new reader. On a side note, names of main characters as titles, like Heidi by Johanna Spyri or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, are best saved for after you have established enough of a name for yourself to draw in your own crowd. Even J.K Rowling had to give more than her main character’s name in order to create reader interest.

Your title should create a question that is tied intimately both to the story and to the intended genre. We have all read a book whose title had almost nothing to do with the story. If your book is called Red Shoes it better have something to do with red shoes; otherwise, I am going to be irritated. It doesn’t have to directly relate though, for instance, the story could have a focus on what colors and shoes mean to the protagonist separately leaving the reader to connect the two meanings through the title, but the title should ultimately make more sense to a reader after they’ve finished reading the piece. This creates a very satisfying Ah-ha moment. This is also the place where you can begin to create an “In” language where words and phrases particular to your novel take on their own meaning.

The next problem arises when the title is trying too hard to declare itself as part of a genre. You can bet money that a title like Gentle Scoundrel or Tender Rogue belongs in the historical romance genre. There is nothing inherently wrong with these titles other than they are not likely to stand out for a reader. Although these titles contain somewhat of a contradiction, variations of these names have been used with enough frequency to make them a trope in their genre. Again, awareness of your intended audience is important, but it is better to treat your reader as if they’re already familiar with the genre. A book titled Grandma Tilney’s Recipe Book is likely to create more interest in the horror genre than it would as a literary novel. This is because our immediate association with Grandma is not horror and that leads us to wonder what it is Grandma Tilney is doing to get herself into the horror section. Try to pleasantly defy rather than humbly submit to reader expectations.

In this space of reader awareness, a play on other titles or genre expectations is often rewarded. Take for instance Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire which gives us a narrative question; what is she confessing? A nod to our understanding of the genre because ugly stepsisters are widely associated with Cinderella, and finally the title defies reader expectations by the sister’s understanding that she is ugly. We expect a justification for ugly behaviour and instead get a story about what it means to be unattractive in a space where beauty equals value for a woman. That last part creates both sympathies for the protagonist who is normally portrayed as evil and the ah-ha moment.

Now for the hard part, putting this information to practical use. On a piece of paper, answer the following questions in connection to the piece you are trying to name.
1)      Who are you writing for?
2)      As a reader, what are you tired of seeing in the genre you are writing in? (If you’re tired of it, it is likely your reader is too.) Take that expectation and turn it on its head. (For example, The Help, gives individual identity and a voice to a people who are typically referred to in other stories by an anonymous function.)
3)      Can your piece be summed up in a simple image or symbol? (The Devil Wears Prada or Where the Red Fern Grows)
4)      Does your protagonist have a catch-phrase? An ultimate fear? A personal goal that drives them through the story? (The Hunt for Red October or No Country for Old Men)
5)      What questions or images will your reader come back to when the piece is finished? (“Escape from Spiderhead” or The Green Mile)

After these questions are answered, underline all action words and any repetitive phrases or images. Finally, circle information that is proprietary to your novel such as proper names. Now arrange this highlighted information in such a way that it invokes a question connected to your story and Tah-Dah! A title is born. It won’t be perfect every time, but it should give you a foundation to work from.


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