How to choose a great title for your story

If you’re anything like me, you find it incredibly difficult to come up with a title for your fiction. In this article, I’ll talk about some general tips on creating a title and then I’ll give you list of styles and templates to springboard off. At the end, you’ll be armed with all the strategies you need to help you choose a great title. 

This article is primarily aimed at writers of fiction, from the shortest length (flash fiction) up to novel length and book series. That said, many of the tips here also apply to poetry and non-fiction.

To start off, then, I’ll talk generally about titles.

Do titles really matter?

The answer is yes, titles matter. They frame your work and give the reader their first clue about what to expect from your story. A good title provokes the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to dive in.

Generally, the shorter the piece, the more the title counts. This is because the title by itself speaks volumes about the story, but this effect lessens proportionally as the word count of the text increases. For example, in flash fiction and short stories, the title will often be used to say a lot in addition to the text itself. They might indicate the lens through which the story should be viewed, or provide additional meaning or information which adds context. This effect diminishes when the word count of the text increases, simply because long texts such as novels are more complex and a title on its own cannot add the same weight to the story.

General tips

  • Avoid dull or generic titles.
  • Don’t give away the ending.
  • Be careful if considering a title containing a pun or other word-play. It can undermine your piece.
  • Avoid over-interpretation or trying to be too clever. It may go over your reader’s head.
  • Be cautious at trying to be shocking or provocative. It can backfire.
  • Make sure your title is easy to remember and easy to pronounce.
  • Use precise nouns and active verbs; for example Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is far more compelling than Love Under the Trees would have been.
  • Make certain your title matches your story; especially in tone and genre. Look at bestselling books in your genre to see what other titles have worked.
  • Google your title to see if it is original and/or whether it is associated with anything undesirable.
  • Titles don’t have copyright but that is no reason to not try to be original. Never use the same or similar title as a bestseller in order to try to hoodwink sales.
  • Maximise your choices. Come up with at least five possible titles before choosing one.
  • Ask others which title they prefer out of your shortlist. Or do a poll on Twitter or Facebook.
  • Don’t be too attached to your title. Titles are frequently changed by editors prior to publication.

List of formats to choose from for a great title

Here is a list of styles to hep you create a great title:

  1. Use a line/phrase from the story.
  2. Use a line cut from an earlier draft.
  3. Co-opt the story’s first sentence, then maybe tweak it a little.
  4. Use the name or description of a character in the story e.g. The Great Gatsby.
  5. Describe the setting/time/place e.g. Middlemarch.
  6. Summarise the plot or describe the story e.g. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Thursday Murder Club. The Day She Came Back.
  7. State the story’s focal object e.g. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 
  8. Use the theme e.g. The Bell Jar. Atonement.
  9. Engineer a title that takes on more than one meaning as the story progresses e.g. Catch 22.
  10. Take a quote/phrase from another source e.g. For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  11. Use a popular idiom or phrase e.g. Gone for Good.
  12. Do a play on words with a popular idiom or phrase e.g. You Only Live Twice.
  13. Try a possessive e.g. Bridget Jones’ Diary.
  14. Use –ing verbs e.g. Deconstructing Harry.
  15. Play with the word ‘And’ using alliteration or opposing themes e.g. Pride and Prejudice. Angels and Demons.
  16. Provoke the reader’s curiosity. e.g. The Secret History.
  17. Play with the reader’s expectations e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  18. Distill what the story is essentially about into one arresting word e.g. Jaws. It.
  19. Use a list of three e.g. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
  20. Use a full sentence e.g. I Know why the Caged Bird Sings.
  21. Use a question e.g. They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
  22. Use rhythm in a long title e.g. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

Choose a great title

Now you’re all set to choose a great title for your story. Let me know in the comments if you have any more tips on the issue, or any more formats to add to the list. The more formats to choose from the better, as they give us the springboards for our ideas.

Pinterest image for How to choose a great story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *