How to Title Your Novel
Struggling to title your novel, eh?
I've been right there with you, friend!
Finding the perfect title for your latest novel is almost never easy, but–believe it or not–there is a bit of a science to it. Just like understanding story structure and studying it in the novels you read can help you better plot your own novels, understanding and studying book titles can do the same!
I've avoided writing this post for so long–despite the fact that it's one of my most requested articles–simply because I didn't understand the science behind titling myself.
But the other day, as I contemplated changing the title of my current WIP, I had a revelation! Whether a story is character-driven or plot-driven has a HUGE impact on how books are titled. Crazy, right?
If you're not sure what character-driven vs. plot-driven novels are all about, check out this blog post from earlier this week. And if you're totally not convinced that there is a bit of science involved in titling books, keep on a'readin'.
Naming your character-driven novel...
Writing a character-driven novel? Me, too!
While you're always going to find exceptions to the "rule" (a.k.a. this breakdown), as I began to look at other character-driven story titles to inspire my book, I caught on to an interesting pattern: character-driven stories are often named after the theme of the story or the main character themselves.
I mean, this makes sense, right?
Character-driven stories explore certain themes through the development of their main characters. It would make sense for these stories to be named after one of those things, right?
Need a few examples to prove this point? Here you go, friend:
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 (Main Character's Name/Nickname/Title):
- 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 main character's name? (e.g. Carrie, Bitterblue)
- Who is my MC in relation to other major characters? (e.g. Daughter of Smoke and Bone)
- Does my MC have an occupation or a hobby? (e.g. The Healer's Apprentice)
- What do other characters call my MC? (e.g. Outlander, The Book Thief)
- What people group does my MC belong to or where do they live? (e.g. The Hobbit, The Martian)
But what about plot-driven stories, you ask?
Plot-driven story titles don't tend to fall into just one or two categories like character-driven ones do, which makes naming your plot-driven story a bit trickier. But not impossible!
If you take a studious look, you'll find that most plot-driven story titles do fall into one of a few categories (seven, to be exact). Let's get started with the breakdown:
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (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 (People Groups):
- 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 (Places):
- 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 (An 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 (An Object or Idea):
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
- The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
- Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
Plot-Driven Novel Titles (Phrases From the Book):
- 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, brainstorm using the title categories we listed above, and start jotting down notes.
If you're lucky, your perfect title will jump right out at you...but don't expect that to happen.
If you have a list of decent ideas or starting points but aren't sure where to head next, think about what lies at the very crux of your story. What one thing–if you removed it from your novel–would change the novel more than anything else?
For example, if we removed The Hunger Games from The Hunger Games, there would no story, right? We'd just have Katniss living and hunting in District 12. Or if we removed the power-hungry lords and ladies making plays for the throne, A Game of Thrones wouldn't have much of a plot either.
If you can find that one, absolutely integral element of your novel, you can find the basis for your title.
You may need to play around with this element a bit–look it up in a thesaurus, add it to a phrase, etc.–but eventually, with enough brainstorming and consideration, you're going to find that winning title.
But what if my title idea doesn't fit into this breakdown?
No worries at all, friend.
There are always going to be exceptions to the rule, especially because I just made this "rule" up. I'm simply following patterns here, and wherever there's a pattern there's always a successful outlier. And that very well may be your novel!
Take for example, these successful novel titles that don't fit "the mold":
Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín. This novel is character-driven, yet it's named after its setting rather than its character or theme. Why? Because in the novel, the city of Brooklyn represents change and growth–some of the themes the novel explores.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. This novel is full of intrigue and action, but at the end of the day, the main character is his own antagonist–making this novel character-driven. And yet again, this book is named after the setting rather than the character or theme.
Why? Because Shutter Island represents insanity, and that's something that the author wants to keep at the back of your mind while you're seeing the events through the main character's eyes.
Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice. This character-driven novel is titled after an event in the story rather than the main character or theme. This time around, the title is meant to intrigue readers and encourage them to see vampires in a non-traditional light.
Sabriel by Garth Nix. This novel is plot-driven, yet it's titled after the main character of the book. This is because an integral topic in the book is Sabriel's identity. When Sabriel is encouraged to take up a new title, she fights to maintain the name she's always held.
So you can see from just those few examples above that there will always be novels that break the mold, and your own may be one of them.
And don't forget that you can also combine elements from multiple categories to create your perfect title. Here are some examples for your consideration:
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
- Any of the Harry Potter books (though I did sneak an example in above!)
And finally, keep in mind that there will always be book titles that don't fall into any of the categories listed above. At the end of the day, choose the title that feels right for your novel. I even recommend running it by beta readers or your editor if you'd like a second opinion before publishing.
I hope you enjoyed this novel title breakdown, writer. Have any questions? Make sure to let me know in the comments below!
I'd love to hear about your latest novel as well. What is its title and how did you choose it? Where did your inspiration come from? Tell me your titling secrets, friend!