How to Come Up With a Title

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My favorite genre for pure reading pleasure is the pulp and mass market crime fiction of the golden age—roughly 1929 (the year The Maltese Falcon was published) to the early 1960s (when secret agents started to take over). Some of the titles from that period reach out and grab you by the lapels. A couple of my faves:

I Wake Up Screaming. This is a noir by Steve Fisher, first published in 1941 and made into a fine film starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. How’s that for a grabber? This was British noir by a writer named Gerald Butler. It came out in 1947 and was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The novel itself is a dark but riveting read with a surprise ending. In form and feel it reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Speaking of which, where in the heck did that title come from?

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder, and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

So let’s talk a bit about how to come with titles for your books.

As with any creative pursuit, the way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas, then toss out the ones you don’t like. Thus, when you do title brainstorming, don’t edit yourself. Let the titles flow!

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz talks about his method of title-storming. He uses the example of a story he was going to write about dragons. He just started listing titles with Dragon it them:

The Cold Dragon
The Warm Dragon
The Dancing Dragon
The Black Dragon
The Eternal Dragon

He went on to different variations, such as The Dragon Creeps and The Dragon Walks.

After about forty titles he got to this: The Dragon Came Softly. And then he tweaked it to: Soft Come the Dragons.

And that was the title that set off lights for him—and sold.

So try this:

1. Create a list of single words related to your plot. Kill, blood, bomb, cop, detective, mother, father, child, darkness, kidnapping. Then spend some time riffing off each one, using them in several possible titles.

2. Come up with a word that is the potential theme of your book: Justice, revenge, love, hate, evil, good, God, the devil. Play with those. Mix and match.

3. Maxims or quotations might provide fodder for a title. There’s an Irish blessing that goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May you be in heaven an hour
Before the devil knows you’re dead.

That became the basis for one of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

4. Create a deep, dark secret in your protagonist’s life that you can work into a title. Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

How to Title Series Books

A title hook for a series is a good idea if you can pull it off. In my first Ty Buchanan legal thriller, I came up with the title Die Trying. Turns out Lee Child used that for one of his Reacher books. Instead of chucking it, I tweaked it and came up with Try Dying. I liked that for a number of reasons, and found a place in the book for that phrase. (That’s another tip. You can give a memorable phrase to a character in the dialogue, then use that phrase for the title. The title of the novel that was the basis for the classic noir Out of the Past is Build My Gallows High. That’s something the protag says to the femme fatale in both book and movie.)

Then it occurred to me that Try could fit a series. So I wrote Try Darkness and Try Fear. I haven’t done a fourth, though many readers have asked me to. The reason is I feel Try Fear has the most perfect ending I’ve ever done and I am loathe to mess with it.

I do, however, have a list of a dozen more Try titles. I used to tell people that when I got down to Try the Veal I’d end the series.

Other well-known series hooks include the Prey books by John Sanford, and the color-coded Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Or use a character’s name. My current series features Mike Romeo, so it’s easy to do: Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, Romeo’s Hammer, Romeo’s Fight. When I get to Romeo’s Codpiece, I’ll stop.

Final note: Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can use one that’s been done before, with the following exceptions:

1. Some titles are trademarked. You can’t use Chicken Soup for the Soul or Harry Potter, for example, without hearing from a lawyer.

2. Other titles are “effectively” trademarked. That is, they belong to books that are classics, or were such big hits that to purloin that title would cause massive blowback from fans and Amazon (which would not carry the book to avoid consumer confusion). So don’t title your book The Da Vinci Code or Mystic River.

But if all else fails, put Girl in the title.

So what is your approach to coming up with titles? Do you like to have a working title before you begin writing?

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54 thoughts on “How to Come Up With a Title

  1. My approach? Ask someone else to do it. Seriously, the title is the LAST thing I come up with–with 2 exceptions. When I started writing my second book, I created a file folder called “Starting Over” which ended up working as a title. But when I got my rights back to that one, another publisher was interested, which meant coming up with yet another title.

    The other one came about when I was going to enter the first 3 chapters in a contest and there was this line on the entry form that said …. “Title.” I half-jokingly wrote in “What’s in a Name?” and that one worked.

    My Blackthorne series started with some form of “Danger” in the title, but after 6, I gave up, partly because I couldn’t keep them straight, and because I was expanding the series with a new set of characters.

    Right now, I’m at a loss for the title for my new Pine Hills Police series. I didn’t follow a tight formula because the second book was written to fulfill a contractual obligation and I didn’t think I’d continue the series. But I did, and now I’m trying to find something that fits with “Finding Sarah” and “Saving Scott” that hasn’t been overused. The character’s name is Morgan, and she’s coming to grips with accepting the way her life has changed. It’s a romantic suspense.
    Accepting Morgan
    Discovering Morgan
    Rediscovering Morgan
    Retuning Morgan (which actually fits the book best, but doesn’t have much zing.)
    Morgan Retuned
    And the list goes on, with nothing sending up fireworks.
    Happy to accept suggestions, TKZers! 🙂

  2. For short stories I like to do the Raymond Carver move and pull a piece of dialogue or other phrase from the story to use as a title (e.g., “Tell the Women We’re Going” or “What’s in Alaska?”). Some of these wind up cool because it’s as if your subconscious wrote the title as you drafted the story.

  3. I’ve tried for a hook in a book series I’m writing but come up dry so far. I assume due to cover space most books don’t just use the “Book 2 Neverending Series” type descriptor.

    This brings up a problem. I tend to discover series fiction late. If the author is well known and easy to find, you can usually Google them to find a list of their book series in order (which is the way I like to read them). But what about the problem of making it easy for readers to know the order of your books at a glance when you’re NOT well known? I don’t think we’ve yet hit on a good solution for making book order readily apparent in the digital age.

    I don’t think it’s consistent, but when you’re surfing book titles on Amazon, SOME of the authors put “John Doe, book 2” in the title/description. So I’m not sure if that’s voluntary on the part of the author or am Amazon requirement for listing your books. I assume author choice?

    Book titles are usually, but not always the last thing I come up with. I typically have some dumb working title as a place holder till I figure it out. In the above mentioned series where I haven’t yet discovered my series hook for the title, the first book has a good title I like but I can see where it also might be construed as cliche. Yet it’s going to take some doing to make me give up that title for the book. It will take a really convincing title to knock that one out of favor.

    • BK, an author has the option on the KDP dashboard of listing series and numbers. Amazon will then put that data on the sales page after the title (e.g., Romeo’s Way (Mike Romeo Thrillers Book 2). It also lists the books above the “also bought” line.

    • I really like that authors put the series name and book number after the title. The authors who don’t use that tool are making it hard on fans who prefer to read series in order. I’ve often spent half an hour or more trying to find out where to start. And I don’t want to have to find the author’s website and hope they’ve arranged their books in order.

      Adding this info to the title saves me time looking for the first book of a new series. And once I read that book and want more, it’s great to find book 2 just by looking at the Amazon book description.

    • Something I’ve seen in recent months is a banner on the top of the cover as part of the design. Each banner gives the series name and the book number. For example, “Witchy McWitches,” Book 1. It’s small enough not to clutter the visuals and text, but it’s informative.

  4. I keep a list of working titles at the top of the sheet while I’m brainstorming plot and when I work on the rough draft. I’m constantly adding and changing titles as I write, and I review what I have at the beginning and end of each writing session.

    Writing children’s fantasy, and inventing unusual alternate worlds, gives me an opportunity to come up with something unique. My WIP is set on the DNA molecule. The working title is The~Tetra~Chrome~Spiral~Skyway.

  5. For my Mayhem Series, all the titles have come easy. My Grafton County series titles, however, drive me insane. Since I started with a one-word title with a double meaning, all subsequent titles had to do the same. I usually start with a working title and the “real” title pops out at me as a write.

  6. My title comes from a phrase in a newspaper account of an event that happens in my story and encapsulates the actions of not just the main character, but pretty much all of the characters. I’ve been criticized for my choice but it’s been from those who haven’t read the book or understand the context of the newspaper account. I wonder if other authors have chosen a title and received criticism for it but went with their gut feeling on it.

    Another noir title I love is D.O.A. I saw that movie on TV when I was a kid. An unusual choice for a kid to watch, but what a story. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

    • D.O.A. is indeed a classic. Who can resist that fantastic opening?

      I want to report a murder.

      Sit down.Where was this murder committed,?

      San Francisco. Last night.

      Who was murdered?

      I was.

  7. I love coming up with titles. The process is almost as good as getting a cover. It christens the book.

    My first editor at HarperCollins liked titles to be 3-5 words. She thought that would make the title more unique & memorable. For my first 3 books, I used “No One” in the series, but I also loved creating the title from dialogue. That way, the reader would have an “Aha” moment when they read the line.
    No One Heard Her SCREAM
    No One Left to Tell
    No One Lives Forever

    For my next series, I kept the same 3-5 word titles but unified the series name – Sweet Justice. Kickass women delivering justice. The series was my version of Charlie’s Angels on steroids. 3 women in various levels of law enforcement fighting crime on a global stage, recruited by a secret vigilante organization. In this series, theme influenced the titles.

    I start brainstorming titles after I begin writing the book to get a feel for it. Lately I’ve also focused on cover tag lines to enhance the title with an intriguing hint of the story to come. For my upcoming new Trinity Le Doux paranormal crime fiction series based in New Orleans, the title for book 1 is THE CURSE SHE WORE & the tag line is THEY HAD DEATH IN COMMON. I like the ominous feel of the tag line, coupled with the title. Good tag lines are HARD to come up with.

    Thanks for the fun Sunday post, Jim.

  8. I brainstorm title ideas, in a similar fashion to your method. I think about the book’s theme, key elements in the story, etc.

    My latest book, an urban fantasy, features a gremlin outbreak causing mayhem and then some. Originally, the novel was entitled, “A Gremlin Kind of Night,” which I loved. But, I always like to get feedback on titles, so, running it by another author friend, he wisely suggested shortening it to “Gremlin Night,” which is punchier, so I went with that.

    • A good reminder, Dale, and something I should have mentioned in the post. Run your title ideas past some people and get their feedback. It’s a simple way to do a little marketing research.

  9. A few years back I came up with this one:

    THE SLUSH PILE SPEAKS

    Can’t think what to do with it.

    Closer to the topic, I just counted 14 files beneath my fiction folder called “Title Ideas.docx” dating back to 2009. Don’t even want to count the titles within. I think my procrastinator is dialed to 9.

  10. Usually my titles come to me first. My Civil War trilogy was A Time for War, A Time for Peace, and A Time for Love.

    Right now I’m working on Descent into Hell and Live Free or Die. I thought th if s knew was going to be a trilogy too, but maybe not.

  11. You reminded me of the line from Woody Allen, who said he took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. “It concerns Russia,” he said.

  12. I think “Fahrenheit 451” was originally titled “The Fireman.” I don’t know who changed it, but thank goodness they did.

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