What Makes A Good Title For A Novel?

I’m having trouble coming up with a title for my novel. It’s not a serious problem as the first draft is only half written and I’ve got plenty more time to think about it. Still, so far, that perfect word or phrase that encapsulates my story and will entice people to read it has eluded me.

So, the other day I decided to take a look at the bookshelves in my house to see what different kinds of titles I could find to inspire me.

The Protagonist’s Name

Jane Eyre:  with a book that’s as much a part of the national psyche as this one, it’s virtually impossible to judge the title objectively. At face value, though, it’s pretty darn boring. Anna Karenina sounds more exotic, at least to anyone who isn’t Russian.  Two names combined, as in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, at least sets up a dynamic. Offbeat names like Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre make you sit up and take notice, as does the peculiar laughter in Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha! All in all, these titles take on far more resonance, I feel, at the end of the book, once the reader has got to know the character in question.

Location

From the minimalistic 26a, by Diana Evans, to the broader Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, titles that refer to setting conjure a sense of place without defining the story. As with the previous category, this kind of title might appear to be highly specific, but actually gives very little away.

Single nouns

Trespass  by Rose Tremain, Disgrace by JM Coetzee, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Beloved by Toni Morrison.  Books with titles like these call for a certain literary weightiness to match the tone and sense of high concept.

Wordy

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Like the remarkable book itself, though undoubtedly clever and artful, this is a tad too self-conscious for my liking. As for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian  by Monica Lewycka, I was so put off by the title I never got around to reading the book at all.

Poetic titles

One person’s wordy is another’s poetic. The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Unconsoled. Wow, Kazuo Ishiguro really excels at these. Soft, elliptical titles that echo the quiet subtlety of his prose. Although Never Let Me Go sounds like it could well come in a pastel pink jacket with flouncy, raised lettering.

A Boring Title That Disguises A Great Book

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  This title is spare and bleak like the post-apocalyptic landscape of the novel. As such it works a treat, but I’m not sure whether, if someone asked me, ‘What’s your novel called?’ and I answered, ‘The Road,’ they’d be driven wild with desire to read it. Trainspotting  by Irvine Welsh could be another example, if you don’t get the drug reference (or even if you do!)

Big Guns

The Roths and the Amises promise insight into the state of contemporary humanity with their titles: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, MoneyLionel Asbo: State of England. A certain degree of hubris is required for a title like this and the requisite skill to justify it.

Having considered these various categories – and there are obviously many, many more – I was surprised how insignificant, uninspiring or underwhelming many titles happen to be, even when the book itself is quite exceptional. Unfortunately, this wasn’t all that helpful in finding a title of my own.

Then I came up with the idea of simply making a list of titles I really like.

Titles I Really Like

The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

The Bottle Factory Outing  – Beryl Bainbridge

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Behind The Scenes At The Museum  – Kate Atkinson

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – Mario Vargas Llosa

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin

A Quiet Belief in Angels – RJ Ellory

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

I’ll Take You There – Joyce Carol Oates

The Accidental – Ali Smith

The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

Some of these books I enjoyed reading more than others, but the titles all work for me. Why? It’s hard to say, except perhaps to note that few, if any, are easy to categorize. All evoke an image or an idea that is implicitly felt, rather than explicitly understood. Intriguing, without being wacky; lyrical, without being twee, they have a certain immediacy and trip nicely off the tongue.

So now I know what I’ve got to aim for in my title. Bleugh.

What book titles do you like and why? Come on. Seriously. I need all the help I can get.

 

This entry was posted in On Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What Makes A Good Title For A Novel?

  1. The agent Karolina Sutton said, it is easier to sell a mediocre book with a great title than a great book with a mediocre title, which is a bit depressing.

  2. claudia says:

    Really? That is depressing 🙁

  3. Marina Sofia says:

    Muriel Spark has some great titles – witty, very precise location (usually) and make me eager to read the books: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington. Loitering with Intent, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.
    I currently live in France and as I was searching for some books to read at the local bookshop (or library), I did have a feeling that some of the titles try a little bit too hard…

    • claudia says:

      Those titles of Spark’s are great. They actually make me want to read the books. And I agree, trying too hard is a common trap to fall into.

  4. Nice post. I am kind of dyslexic about titles so like ones that can be remembered easily. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is very easy to remember, I think. And a good book. And a good film. (I’m not on commission here.) x

  5. claudia says:

    Of course, I forgot the witty/ironic category. Lots of scope there. But not appropriate for my novel, alas. Memorable, though, is certainly something to strive for.

  6. Abbey says:

    Your picks are some of my favorites, too. I like titles that paint a unique picture.

    These ones have often appealed to me: Our Vines have Tender Grapes, Arsenic and Old Lace, All Quiet on the Western Front, Measure for Measure, Lysistrata, and The Way of the World.

    One of the books on my shelf is there because I liked the title. It’s called, “Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides.” I didn’t know a thing about Herbrides or what they were until I got home to look it up. That’s when I realized mysterious objects or words can boost a title’s appeal. Like The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby. It makes you think, because it’s unknown. You want to pick up the book to find out what it really means.

  7. Abbey says:

    Oh! I meant to ask you if you’ve seen this article/blog about a six year old girl who guesses classic book titles? It’s really cute. Jane Eyre is my favorite.
    http://twentytwowords.com/2012/07/23/a-6-year-old-guesses-the-plots-of-classic-novels-based-on-their-covers/

  8. claudia says:

    Yes, Jane Eyre definitely a miner! Thanks Abbey. So I’ve got to find a mysterious, intriguing title. Agh, why am I so crap at this?! x

  9. Abbey says:

    I think we’re all crap at it, haha. I hate making titles. I dropped a poetry writing class because the professor thought my title was boring (among other things).

    Most of these titles describe a significant object, event or person that will change the story. I would look for something that impacts your novel, and go from there.

  10. Andy Wilson says:

    Another category of title is dates (or time) – as in ‘1984’ or ‘The Year of the Flood’.

    I’ve changed my title three times already and I don’t know if the fourth attempt will last too long. The first two were geographical while the third and the current one are to do with time. I don’t mind if I try out another ten titles between now and the final edit. Famous authors can get away with nearly anything (‘The Road’ being a perfect example) because it’s their name that sells books but I think that for a new author, a good title is critical.

Leave a Reply

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

*