Saturday, 20 June 2020

What Makes a Great Book Title?

I received a lovely email from a treasured subscriber this week.
She noted that I don't have anything on what makes a good title for an article, book or novel - or indeed how to come up with one.

Never one to shirk an opportunity to help writers, here's my advice on how to come up with compelling titles.

Use Magic

For the purposes of my fiction writing, I study magic, astrology, numerology, witchcraft and various other arcane subjects. I find it interesting - and revealing about human nature.

There's a little known philosophy amongst mages (yes, they exist!) that holds to the idea that the very sound and rhythm of certain letters, words and phrases is magical. Which I think is actually why the word 'spell' has a double meaning...

Anyway, what you can learn from this is that certain consonants like 'D' and 'P' and 'B' are more resonant on a listener (or reader) than other less 'dramatic' letters like 'M','N' or 'V' for instance.

Also, that phrases (and names) with an odd number of syllables - 3, 5, or 7 etc, as opposed to even numbers, tend to be more compelling and authoritative sounding.

Hence, The Da Vinci Code, (5 syllables and the hard consonants), The Horse Whisperer (5), The Celestine Prophecy (7), have a standalone strength that comes from the rhythm of the title.

Similarly, names are thought to be more solid sounding when configured around 3, 4 or 5 syllables, as opposed to 2 or more than 5, which apparently sound less authoritative - or simply put less 'catchy'.

Use Common Sense

You want to have titles that make sense. A long time ago I wrote a short story called 'The Concomitant of Isis'. I thought I was being very clever until my writing group complained that the title didn't make sense, sounded pompous, and didn't help a reader work out what the story was about! I changed it to 'Forever Dead.'

You need to use words that are clearly understood individually - even if the phrase they're contained in is not so transparent. Titles that fall into this category might be: The Joy Luck Club, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and The Hunt for Red October.

ASIDE: Book cover designers are said not to like the word 'The'. if you've ever studied book covers you'll note that designers often try to hide the definite article by making it smaller than the rest of the title, sometimes so small you can't even see it from a distance!

Be Mysterious

There's nothing wrong with being intriguing by using a phrase that suggest 2 or 3 interpretations, even meanings that sound cool but have little to do with the work.

I once heard that a Hollywood studio had a list of a dozen potential titles for an upcoming movie and herded some punters off the street and tried out the titles on them. 'Which movie would you go and see, based solely on the title?' they asked. I'm not sure how it turned out but the story gives you some idea of the power of a title alone.

The title 'Quantum of Solace' (note the 5 syllables) would seem to have this quality of inspiring the response 'What the h*ll is that about?' As does Nightmare on Elm Street or The Sting or Fatal Attraction or Identity etc. All great sounding but, unless you've seen the movie, mysterious.

Be Evocative

Professional copywriters and marketers are very aware that certain words create automatic, largely subconscious reactions in people. Words like summer, happiness or success on the up side of emotions and on the down, words like cry, despair and fear create a Pavlovian response in the listener which the astute writer can use to their advantage.

Words like brilliant, beautiful, bride and blonde (notice all the 'B's there) provoke emotional responses. As do deadly, damaged, direct and disaster.

Be Helpful

When it comes to article writing and self help books, the competition for a reader's attention is fierce. The best you can do in these situations is be right up front, even outrageous with your title. Which would you rather read - an article called 'Gardening Blues' or 'Six Ways to Clear That Crud!' Possibly neither but I'm sure you get the idea.

The average person's attention is subjected to 1000 advertising messages a day. In amongst that they are actually seeking useful information. How does anyone differentiate between the myriad of incoming data?

You need to be specific nowadays. You need your title to tell people exactly what your message is or if not, be intriguing enough to warrant a second look.

7 Habits of Successful People, How to be Your Own Life Coach, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and Chicken Soup for the Soul fall into this category.


There really is no better way of coming up with titles than to deliberately set writing time aside to brainstorm them.

Okay, great titles sometimes just come to you. They have an inherent insistence you keep returning to. But mostly, you'll have to juggle words and phrases until you find titles that appeal to you - and others.

Robyn and I do this around the pool table. We'll have a glass of wine and, while potting balls, brainstorm movie and book titles, even character names. Many are not great (we'll laugh and giggle about the bad ones) but one idea can lead to another, one word that is right can carry you on to combinations that sound better. Completely unpromising starts can lead us to a title or name that seems definitive, sharp and compelling.

Try it yourself with a friend - because most of all, you should...

Have Fun

Writing is about transferring your thoughts, words and ideas into the mind of another person - without you actually having to be there with them!

Remember that your interest, passion and enthusiasm for your own writing comes across. On some deep mysterious level, your reader can pick up on you, the writer - and trust you if they know you're sincere.

Make your titles reflect the joy you feel towards you work. Use your titles deliberately to pique a reader's or editor's interest.

Be mischievous, be clever but most of all, be honest.

Hope this helps.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy