On Titles

05 Oct

Titles are one of my favorite parts of writing. Can’t get enough of them. I get ideas for titles all the time, and I often grab a book based on the title. Sure, I check the cover art, and read the blurb, maybe even scan the first few pages. But what gets my attention first is the title. I’ve developed a strong ability to pick books I will like based on title alone. Sometimes I fail, as it’s the writing and not the story that is the problem. But usually, I’m very successful.

First, here’s an open secret: As a lot of writers will tell you, we have a love/hate relationship with our own titles. I’m not talking about the final title of a given book, that’s a whole other discussion. I’m talking about the first title or the working title or the “I love this title so much and the damn editor* better not change it” title—published authors may chuckle at that last, and with good reason. But again, whole different discussion. “Titles” is an oft-occurring subject for blog posts and forum threads on the topic of writing. No matter how many threads there have been on a given writing forum, the subject of “titles” never dies. You could link the poster to a thousand other great discussions, and the new thread would still keep on running. I’m counting on this fact to keep my own little title post here afloat.

Now, I am not other writers, and they are not me. I can only speculate and infer how they deal with the title struggle. But what I can discuss with surety is my own experience with titles. Titles and I have more love than hate. This is because I belong to the first type of writer: the writer whose title usually comes first or very early on in the process. Other writers can go all the way to the end of the first draft and beyond before they even think about what to title their book. Many writers struggle with titles. I’ve been fortunate in that this only happens one out of ten. I’ve only had trouble once or twice. All writers fall somewhere on this continuum running from “before I even have a story” to “only after I finish the last draft”. The closer you are to the middle, the more writers you are likely find. And honestly, even individual titles vary.

Another way to analyze titles is by type. That is, what elements are used in the title, and how do they relate to the story. For me, titles come in several types:

1.  The “seed” title. That’s where I come up with a title, and build a story around it. Can’t really give an example here, as this title is of a different sort than the others. You’d probably never know whether this title or that fell into this category.

2.  The “plot” title. That’s where the title describes the basic plot of the story. Example: Return of the King  The story ends with the Steward of Gondor dead, and a new King on the throne.  Pretty self-explanatory.

3.  The “device” title. It describes a story device, usually a macguffin, and is especially common in fantasy and sci-fi titles. Example: Forging the Darksword  The story is about the creation of a specific artifact, the “Darksword” of the title.

4. The “antagonist character” title. Basically, it includes the name of a character. Example: Lord Foul’s Bane  “Lord Foul” is the antagonist of the series.

5. The “heart” title.  Somehow, someway, it describes the heart of the story. These are often the hardest ones to figure out. Example: Nor Crystal Tears   I won’t spoil the story, but this is an ironic statement by a main character at the very end of the book.  It succintly packages the real heart of the story.  These titles tend to express emotion.

6.  The “protagonist character” title.  Self-explanatory.  example:  The Time Traveler’s Wife

7.  The “place” title.  Also self-explanatory.  Example: Elysium

There are many ways to create a title, and no one can teach you what will work best for you. Different people think and work differently. It’s really all up to the writer to experiment with each type and discover what works best for them.

*Editors are often wonderful people. Don’t hate. 🙂

Now, the above list is not exhaustive. Some books are named after central themes. Many titles include some snippet of dialogue. Some are ripped from poetry. Some involve locations, and event names, and so on. I have used all of these types of titles. And they can often be combined. But to describe and analyze every single type of title is beyond the scope of this post.  There may be a series in the future where I will pick a type of title and do a post on it.  Perhaps after the Subgenre of the Week Series runs its course.


Posted by on October 5, 2009 in Ideas, Titles, Writing


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9 responses to “On Titles

  1. xxhawkeyexx

    October 5, 2009 at 11:06 PM

    Thanks for the advice! 🙂
    Great post!
    I’m also the type of person who gets the title first.
    Take care,

  2. ralfast

    October 5, 2009 at 11:58 PM

    I’m also a “title first” writer. I feel lost without at least a working title, if not the definite title from the onset. In fact the titled is the first thing I think off when I story idea pops up in my mind.

  3. atsiko

    October 6, 2009 at 12:38 AM

    Thanks both for the comments. Glad to see some other title-first writers out there. Do you guys build off of a title, is does it come as prt of a package. Say, a concept, some characters, an a few scenes?

    But truthfully, I don’t _need_ a title to work on a project. It just so happens that I let ideas simmer long enough before working on them that a title has popped into my head by the time I am ready to begin. My first project, which I wrote right off–since I didn’t have any distractions–I used a working title which I later dropped, and I haven’t figured out a new one yet. But recently, I’ve been getting either “seed” titles or else a title presents itself fairly early on.

  4. Jacob @ Drying Ink Reviews

    October 6, 2009 at 7:25 PM

    Great post! I’m generally a title-first fan, as in your “seed title”, too. 🙂 Love the blog!

  5. Beth

    October 7, 2009 at 1:45 AM

    I usually don’t come up with titles first, but I always try to have a working title, even if its just the main character’s name.
    I’m definitely a “learn” the context sort of person. I actually dislike titling my work, because the titles usually end up dull!
    Good post! I enjoyed reading it.

  6. atsiko

    October 6, 2009 at 8:52 PM

    Yeah, a lot of writers talk about how they come up with a character, or a scene, an decide to “learn” the context by writing about it. Because of my habit of buying books by title, I’ve found it interesting to do so with titles as well. It’s nice to know I am not alone.

  7. atsiko

    October 7, 2009 at 2:01 AM

    Thanks, Beth.

    When I really have to struggle with a title, it drives me crazy. Like you said, everything sounds so dull. I look at all the wnderful titles on books I love, and think “Dammit! Why couldn’t I ave come up with that. Rothfuss has “The Name of the Wind, and here I am with “Clyde the Centaur.”

    I don’t dislike the _idea_ of titling, but I’ve often had issues with the process.

  8. Beth

    October 7, 2009 at 4:06 AM

    Haha! That’s my thought process, too.

    I love looking at the titles of books. Some of my favorites include Band of Brothers and Beneath a Marble Sky (the former is from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the latter from a line in the book).

    My titles usually end up being one or two words long! My personal favorites: “Brothers” and “Diana’s Portrait.” Neither are particularly good (I actually think my best title is “Exquisitely Severe”).

    The process is pretty grueling, for me at least. I really struggle with it. This goes for reports, too, not just fiction or poetry. The titles tend to be rather obvious. Hopefully, I’ll improve with time.

  9. atsiko

    October 7, 2009 at 4:46 AM

    I’ve been quite lucky with titles, lately. Except one story where there is a title I love and that would be perfect, but it is already used for a somewhat similar story (which I also love) which is a published piece of fiction in the form of an anime OVA. I don’t tink the title quite fits this story which only makes it more frustrating.


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