by Deb Brammer
A catchy title can get you to read an article, or a least start to read an article, that you would never normally read. A great title can increase the sales of a book dramatically. Other than the artwork, the title is usually the first thing to catch a reader’s eye. You know that. You want to choose great titles for your work. But how do you do it?
First of all, we need to look at what makes a great title. How do you know a great title when you see one?
Good titles are short. Usually. In 1994 Bob Jones University Press published my first book Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World. That’s a long title. At first my editor wanted to shorten it, but she finally accepted it and had the designer work around the length problem. My husband still tells me that it’s a great title. Others have remarked about how catchy it is. But it is long. I wouldn’t be surprised if my publisher today would not let me keep the title. Today the trend is toward very short titles, even one word titles. You probably don’t want your titles to be any longer than five words.
Good titles hint at what the piece is about. Many times the best title is one which tells what the reader can get from the article. “Ten Tips to Grow Healthier Roses,” will draw the attention of readers who want healthier roses. On the other hand, articles or books that promise one thing and give another make the reader lose interest in the first paragraph. In fiction the title should hint at the basic mood or theme or subject matter of the book.
When Life and Beliefs Collide by Carolyn Custis James is an excellent book with an excellent title. Unfortunately the subject matter of the book doesn’t quite match the book, so while I recommend the book, I always have to say, “That’s not really what it is mainly about.”
Good titles grab the reader’s attention. One of the best titles I’ve found is Disappointment with God by Phil Yancey. At a writer’s conference I heard an editor who was involved in the process of choosing that title, talk about it. It was a risky title. They didn’t know how Christians would respond to the title, but they took the risk with good results. I remember the first time I saw that book in a bookstore. I kind of snuck a peek at it and hid it from the view of bystanders as I did so. But the title grabbed my attention and the book lived up to its title by dealing very well with the subject.
Good titles are fresh and original. Think of new ways to express old ideas. While “Ten Tips to Grow Healthier Roses” will work for a dedicated rose gardener looking for help, a clever title will do more. It will capture the reader’s interest, lower his resistance to your ideas, make him smile or remember your work.
Getting Ideas for Titles
So how do you come up with these clever, attention-grabbing titles?
Look into the body of your story or article for words that can be developed into a title. If you can’t find something already there, you may have to start with a good title, then go back into your piece and work the new idea or item into the text.
Today the marketing department often chooses the title for a book. If the author comes up with a strong enough title they may go with it. Otherwise they may come up with their own titles. Two Sides to Everything was the title the marketing department chose for my second book. Throughout the book I had repeatedly emphasized that there are two ways of looking at almost everything, so the title worked well.
Two Sides to Everything featured a boy who tried to fix everything. It has chapters named, “When Duct Tape Won’t Work,” and “Anything is Possible with Number 8 Wire.” I took items that would have a visual and symbolic impact and turned them into titles. These titles would be long for a book, but pass for chapter titles.
You might try a play on words. Look through books of quotations or think of common sayings that might fit your subject matter. How could you twist those words to come up with a title?
Rene Gutteridge has a series of books that happen in Skary, Indiana. They are titled Boo, Boo Hiss, Boo Who, and Boo Humbug. Boo Hiss deals with snakes. Boo Who deals with an identity crisis. Boo Humbug happens at Christmas. I’ve read a couple of these and, if I remember right, someone is named Boo in the book.
Think about strong action verbs that deal with your subject and specific, colorful nouns. Can you use a combination of these for a title? At the same time avoid adverbs and weak adjectives or any unnecessary words.
Rene Gutteridge has another series of books about a family of people in various occupations. They have titles like Skid (about a pilot), Snitch (about a police officer), and Scoop (about a news anchor.)
Ted Dekker has titles that use verbs: Burn, and Kiss. And he uses (mainly) nouns for another series: Chosen, Infidel, Renegade, Chaos, and Lunatic. All of these are strong words that move the emotions.
Nicky Cruz uses a combination of verbs and nouns: Run, Baby, Run.
For a non-fiction piece, think about what the reader will want to gain from it. When Life and Beliefs Collide is a title that pulls at you when life doesn’t make sense. It hints at conflict right in the title, hooking the reader before she opens the book.
Will these hints make coming up with a good title easy? No. You will probably have to keep working at the title long after your other work is done. Read your work over looking for ideas that will work. Try some of the ideas I’ve listed. Walk around the park. Sleep on it. Think about it while you’re standing in line in the supermarket. Look at items around you that suggest a title. Pray. James Scott Bell says, (in Plot and Structure), “The journey of a thousand miles requires plenty of snacks.” Snacks seem to help ideas develop. Maybe that’s why I’m putting on weight.