How to Title Your Novel
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Choosing the perfect title for a story is tough. There's no real process to it, no formula. Or is there?
Despite being one of my most requested articles, I delayed writing this piece on titling because I never quite knew what tips to offer. The whole process seemed so subjective! But the other week I had a revelation; there's far more of a science to choosing the perfect book title than I'd suspected.
After studying book titles pretty intensively these past few weeks, I realized that whether a book is plot- or character-driven often has a big impact on how it's titled. Sounds strange, right? But the data doesn't lie, writer. So if you're struggling to choose the perfect title for your latest story, buckle in. You're going to love today's breakdown.
Naming a character-driven story...
Writing a character-driven piece? Me, too! When I began brainstorming my book's title, I turned to other character-driven stories for inspiration and discovered an interesting pattern: character-driven stories are often named after the protagonist or the themes revealed through protagonist's story arc.
And this makes sense, right? Character-driven stories explore theme through the protagonist's development over the course of the story. It stands to reason that the story would likely be named after one of these two vital elements. Here are a few popular examples to rest my case:
Character-Driven Novel Titles (Theme):
Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion by Jane Austen
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Voices by Ursula Le Guin
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Character-Driven Novel Titles (Protagonist's Name or Identity):
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Carrie by Stephen King
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Finniken of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
The Healer's Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
If you're writing your own character-driven novel, ask yourself these title brainstorming questions:
• What themes do I explore in my novel? (e.g. Atonement, Pride and Prejudice)
• How do these themes expand into thematic statements? (e.g. If I Stay, Me Before You)
• What is another name or phrase for my story's theme? (e.g. our destinies = our stars)
• What is my protagonist's name? (e.g. Carrie, Bitterblue)
• Who is my protagonist in relation to other major characters? (e.g. Daughter of Smoke and Bone)
• Does my protagonist have an occupation or a hobby? (e.g. The Healer's Apprentice)
• What do other characters call my protagonist? (e.g. Outlander, The Book Thief)
• What title might my protagonist bear? (e.g. The Hobbit, The Martian)
But what about plot-driven stories, you ask?
Unfortunately, plot-driven stories aren't quite as easy to categorize as character-driven ones. The majority of these stories fall into one of seven categories rather than a simple pair, which may make the naming of your plot-driven story a bit trickier—but certainly not impossible. Let's break down these seven categories below:
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Plot-Defining Secondary Characters):
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Name of People Group):
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Unusual Setting):
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
Under the Dome by Stephen King
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (A Momentous Event):
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Object of Importance):
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (MeaningFul Phrase):
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Motifs):
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Writing a plot-driven story? Now's the time to pull out a piece of paper and begin brainstorming using the categories we broke down above. If you're lucky, the perfect title may jump out at you straight away, but don't expect this to happen. Most often, the perfect title takes time.
If you're struggling, ask yourself what lies at the crux of your story. What element, if removed, would utterly deflate its plot?
Without the Hunger Games, for example, Katniss wouldn't have had to volunteer as tribute to save her sister. Neither would the Pevensie children have found their way to Narnia if the lion, the witch, or the wardrobe did not exist.
Once you've defined the crux of your own story, it's time to mull it over for a bit. Play around with the words and phrases that encapsulate it. Have some fun! It may take some time, but I have not doubt you'll find your winning title before long.
What if my title doesn't follow this method?
No worries, writer. Not a single one. There is no firm right or wrong when it comes to titling a book, especially given the influence of popular marketing trends. While I'd encourage you to choose as timeless a title as possible, know that it doesn't have to fit within the mold we outlined today in order to prove successful. Just take a look at these popular titles:
Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín. This award-winning, character-driven novel is named after its setting rather than its protagonist or theme, as the setting itself is symbolic of growth and change, two themes the novel explores.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Similarly to Brooklyn, Shutter Island is a character-driven book whose setting represents one of the biggest themes its protagonist's character arc explores: insanity.
Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice. This character-driven novel is titled after the event at the crux of its plot rather than its protagonist or theme, perhaps because the event is so strange that it was sure to grab readers' attention.
Sabriel by Garth Nix. Despite its plot-driven nature, Sabriel is named after its protagonist because of her goal within the story: to maintain her identity even as she's called upon to take up a new and dangerous role.
In addition to titles that break the mold, some are simply more complex, combining elements from two or more of the categories we discussed above. Think you might like to choose a similar title? Here are a few examples:
Complex Novel Titles
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
And finally, there are some titles that won't fall into any of the categories we discussed today. If your title doesn't either, don't send it packing straight away. Choose the title that feels right for you and your story, no matter which molds it may or may not break.
If you feel as though you'll never be sure, I'd suggest getting a second opinion from a few beta readers or fellow writers. Your Write Dream, our Well-Storied Facebook group, is a great place to start.