A book shelf full of speculative fiction titles.

Image by XiXiDu used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Story titles are tough little nuts to crack. They have many of the requirements of a first sentence, but for titles, those requirements must be met in just a few words. While you may need a team of brainstormers to find the perfect title, understanding what your title should accomplish will take you a long way.

Setting Correct Expectations

Stories come in many shapes and forms, and few types of stories will appeal to everyone. Some people enjoy scifi but not fantasy; others enjoy light stories but not dark ones. That’s why it’s important to avoid a title that’s misleading. A misleading title risks trading in your story’s real fans for an audience pre-disposed to dislike it. For instance, take the movie Baby Driver. Everyone who hears that title thinks it’s a family movie about a baby that drives. It’s actually a crime thriller. At least at the theater, movie ratings can keep children from wandering into the wrong show by mistake.

When you are coming up with ideas, evaluate them against these aspects of your story.

  • Genre: In general, you’ll want to use archaic terms or phrasing for high fantasy and modern ones for scifi. Even if your scifi story is about a sword or your fantasy story is about a thinking machine, putting those things in your title can mislead your audience. Unless you have room to specify it’s a laser sword, etc, you’ll want to avoid that.
  • Mood: The most important mood distinction is whether the piece is light or dark. Many people have a strong preference between the two. Titles that sound like they’d fit a children’s book, such as Ann and the Golden Key or The Grumbly Griffin, will signal a light story. If possible, you should also give more specific hints about the atmosphere, such as mystery, action, suspense, or romance.
  • Style: You don’t want to put a formal-sounding title on a story that’s casual and full of cursing. If you put effort into making your story sound poetic, put extra effort into making the title poetic too.
  • Content: Obviously, the title should touch on the subject matter or themes of the story. This requirement is not strict, but if the title gives your audience the wrong idea about what’s central to the story, or the audience reaches the story’s end and still doesn’t know what the title refers to, they may feel dissatisfied.

Setting the right expectations can be especially difficult if your story takes a unique angle. If your story is a horrific tale about childhood toys or a fluffy romp with zombies, you’ll have more trouble finding a fitting title. If you think your title may be misleading and you can’t think of something better, the best thing you can do is pair it with a cover image that compensates for it. However, this is not a replacement for a good title. Even those who publish their own works cannot guarantee a cover image will always be seen wherever the title appears.

Providing a Teaser

As part of your story’s opening, the title should help draw people in. Because of their size, titles aren’t expected to be show-stopping, but they shouldn’t be boring or overused either. A plain description like Knights in Armor may set correct expectations about your story, but it won’t make your story sound engaging. Here’s what will.

  • Unique ideas: If your story has an interesting premise, simply stating that premise can do the trick. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. It makes people wonder exactly how hunger relates to games. They know that their curiosity will be satisfied if they read the book or watch the movie.
  • Conflict: Particularly if your story is tense, hinting at conflict will make your title more engaging. For instance, Happy Death Day is a thriller coming out soon. However, conflict can be more subtle. If you had the title Before the Rivers Run Dry, it would hint at conflict both because rivers running dry doesn’t sound good and because the “before” suggests the rivers running dry is a deadline of some sort.
  • Mystery: Your title can pose a question or suggest one. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a wonderful title because it both poses a question and sounds unique. A title like Where the Sidewalk Ends suggests the question “where does the sidewalk end?”
  • Catchy wording: A clever turn of phrase will attract attention and make the title stick in people’s minds. Look for idioms that fit your story. For instance, Stranger Things is a great title because it plays off the common phrase “stranger things have happened” and because it tells potential viewers that strange things will happen in the TV show.

While you are working on a great teaser, make sure you aren’t overselling. For instance, the title John Dies at the End is very striking. It demonstrates conflict and subversively gives away the ending. There’s just one problem: John doesn’t actually die at the end.* I recommend against this; you don’t want to attract an audience just to disappoint them.

Making a Memorable Moniker

The final thing a title needs is memorability. If your title isn’t memorable, it’ll be hard for word of your story to spread. People who’ve heard about it may not be able to find it. A forgettable title is also less engaging and will attract less attention to your work. A recent movie titled John Carter went by practically unnoticed. If they had kept to any of the original titles, such as A Princess of Mars, it would’ve gotten more attention.

To judge how memorable your title is, considering whether it has these qualities.

  • Fresh: Avoid overused words and phrases in your title. For instance, take the movie Edge of Tomorrow. This is actually a very good movie, but in my experience, no one can ever remember the name. The title is appropriate to the work – a scifi action flick with a Groundhog Day premise – and it hints at conflict. The problem is overuse. The word “tomorrow” has been used so often in movie titles that it now comes off as bland and meaningless.
  • Simple: Most writers don’t need to be told that a paragraph-long title is too long. However, remember that if you squeeze in a title, and then a subtitle, and then a sub sub title, you are just muddying the waters. Even having one book name and one series name can confuse people. Is it Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire?
  • Descriptive: The more your title clearly describes the central elements of your story, the easier it will be for people to remember. For instance, Game of Thrones is easier to remember than Song of Ice and Fire. That’s largely because the series spends most of its time covering the struggle over the Iron Throne rather than the struggle between between ice and fire.

If your marketing strategy for your story depends more on word of mouth, consider a title that’s also easy to say. While Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is intriguing, it sure is a mouthful. It can also be helpful if the title shortens easily. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone can be just Harry Potter or Sorcerer’s Stone depending on whether someone is referring to the series or the first book.

If you have trouble coming up with good titles, it can be helpful to brainstorm before writing your first draft. Then if you think of something short and catchy, you can write the story to match.

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