Searching For That Great Title? Dig Deep Into Your Theme

You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal. — William S. Burroughs.

By PJ Parrish

Would it have been the same if Freddy Mercury had gone with his first instinct and called it Mongolian Rhapsody?

I dunno. I don’t see Mongolians as a very rapturous bunch. But yes, that was the original title of Bohemian Rhapsody. This tidbit came out recently when Mercury’s handwritten lyric sheets for his magnum opus surfaced as part of an upcoming Sotheby’s auction. Mercury wrote with pencil on stationery from the defunct airline British Midland Airways. On one sheet, an early draft of Bohemian Rhapsody can be seen with the title Mongolian Rhapsody, which was later crossed out and replaced with “Bohemian.”

I love this story. Because I love stories about bad titles that almost saw the light of day. Desert Song doesn’t fire the imagination like A Horse With No Name does. Van Morrison started out singing about a Brown Skinned Girl until taming it down to a brown-eyes girl for radio station play. The Big Bopper was calling it What I Like before he decided Chantilly Lace was sexier. When Mick Jagger set out to write a song about political violence he titled it Did Everyone Pay Their Dues? (huh?) before changing it to Street Fighting Man. And my favorite Beach Boys’ song, the gorgeous paeon to lost love Caroline No began as Carol, I Know. So glad you changed it, Brian.

Titles are important, friends. Especially if you’re writing a novel.

Your book’s title is the most important marketing decision you will make. You can self-publish or go traditional. It doesn’t matter. You can have a great professionally produced cover. You can have a killer opening line. But if your title is bad, you’ve lost that vital chance to make a great first impression.

I don’t get it. I don’t get why so many writers don’t pay more attention to this. I see so many dull, flaccid, trite titles these days. Like the writer used up all their energy on the story and there was nothing left so they slapped a dried-up and usually alliterative mishmash of words on their manuscript and hoped no one noticed.

Why give up so easily?

I know why. Coming up with a great title is really hard work. I used to write headlines for a living back when I was in the newspaper business. Great headline writing is an art. Try boiling down a news or feature story to its crux in less than ten words — words that will grab the reader and pull them in.

It’s even harder titling a novel. The best titles work on multiple levels. Things you want your title to do:

  • Be unique. You need a title that readers will instantly remember, whether they are looking for it in a bookstore or on Amazon. And it can’t be something someone else came up with already.
  • Summarize your story.  A good title gives a reader an idea of what kind of book to expect. It is a hint, a headline if you will, about what lies inside.
  • Convey your mood. Which also gives the reader an idea of what genre of sub-genre you’re working in. A juicy thriller title won’t sound the same as a somber historical title will.
  • Define your theme. This is the hardest and deepest level to plumb. The greatest titles manage to capture the underlying theme, the human message that you, as a writer, are trying to communicate.

Easy, right? Yeah, right. But I am here today to beg you — don’t settle. Dig deep and find the right combination of words that capture your story’s heart. A great title is like haiku — emotion pruned to its beautiful essence.

I feel so strongly about this that I’ve devoted whole workshops to this subject. So I’ve collected lots of stories about how writers come up with their titles. One of my favorites concerns Philip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I haven’t found a satisfying explanation of how or why Dick came up with this title. His working title was Electric Shepherd. Which makes some sense given the fact the protag is actually the proud owner of an electrified ewe, but it’s sort of dorky and dull. I love the wink-wink to counting sheep in the final title.

And then there’s the question of how, when it came to Ridley Scott’s movie adaption, Dick’s title morphed into Blade Runner.

The film’s title also changed several times. During the script-writing process, it was called Dangerous Days. (Zzzzz). How it became Blade Runner is a long and convoluted story involving an obscure 1974 sci-fi novel called The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse and the profane Beat Generation guru William S. Burrough. (An aside: Sometimes you can improve a title by merely dropping “the.”)

So what should you consider when searching for that perfect title? I repeat, look to your theme. But let’s allow other novelists to weigh in.

Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter began life as The Mute. Prosaic, harsh, resonant of nothing. McCullers found her final title in a poem called “The Lonely Hunter” by Fiona MacLeod:

What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.


 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter captures the novel’s essential message: that each character is a “hunter,” wanting a different thing out of life, therefore sending them into this spiral of loneliness and isolation from others and the outside world. Theme!

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was originally titled Strangers From Within. The latter isn’t a bad title, but Golding dug deeper. Lord of the Flies is another name for the devil. He is also called the Lord of Filth and Dung. Throughout the novel, the children grow dirtier and dirtier, an outward reflection of their inner state. As their savagery and evil increases, they seek a symbol, a god to worship. Theme!

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s first title was Atticus. Which tells us nothing. The book isn’t even really about Atticus; he is only the plot-propellant. The book is about innocence destroyed by evil. Where does the mockingbird come in? In many cultures or folklores, the bird is a totem of good omens, even seen as guardian angels or animal spirits encouraging us to protect those we love. The longest reference to the title comes in chapter 10 when Scout explains: “‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” She’s referring of course to Tom Robinson and Boo Radley who, like the mockingbird, only wish to bring happiness. Theme!

Well, as usual, I have flapped my gums and run long here. Can’t help it. I love this topic. I should have added some good tips, some practical how-to advice. But I don’t have any easy answers for this, any quick fixes and I am not going to give you links to those awful title-generators.

All I can do is implore anyone of you out there struggling to find your great title to dig deeper. Your title is not to be found in worn-out adjectives. It’s not there in a string of cheap alliteration. It’s not to be found in your place or your protagonist’s name. (Sorry, you’re not Stephen King and Peyton Place has been taken). Look to your theme. Your title in waiting there, waiting for you to discover it.

You can’t fake a quality title any more than you can fake a good meal.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

53 thoughts on “Searching For That Great Title? Dig Deep Into Your Theme

  1. Good topic! I’ll try Lincoln’s Mother’s Doctor’s Dog next.

    Seriously, my titles lean heavily on power words, labels with strong connotations: Moon, Death, City, Lost, Sin, Poison, Forest, Planet, Silver, Gold, Stone, Ruby, Orchid, Angel, etc., etc. Every title should have at least one power word. Two, if you can manage it. Three is overkill, but my poetry anthology is titled, Moon Over the Lost City. I had to add a poem with the same name to make the title reflect at least something to do with the book.

    I sometimes find cramming theme into the title a bit on the nose. It’s a good thing, if you can make it work, but it’s not always practical. Remember, you have the front cover to do some of the heavy lifting. And, anyway, theme is a rather ethereal thing, and may not be easily incorporated in either the cover or the title. The audience or the reader doesn’t really need to know the theme in every case.

    Branding is another title consideration. If you’re doing a series, and Heaven help you if you’re not, you can feature the same word in all the series titles. Maybe your protagonist’s name: Maigret This or Maigret That.

    A few of my titles, movies, books, or plays. Spot the power words.
    Prisoner of Suggins Holler. Spoiler. A bit of misdirection, here, because the guy in the cell is really innocent.
    Sail Away on My Silver Dream: Two children sail away from their dysfunctional homes in their imaginations. Semi-thematic.
    Unforsaken: The question here is just who is unforsaken? Is it Diego, the desperado? Or Abilene, the greenhorn? A bit thematic.
    Call of a Distant Song: The human condition, a desire for something ineffable. One musical number, an “I want” song, same title..
    Do Those Voices in Your Brain Bother You? A bit long, but the play is about the brain. Theme: the brain is not a computer; it’s a modem.
    Shake, Willy: MC believes he’s William Shakespeare after he returns from a party, totally smashed, and can’t remember who he is in the a.m.
    Sorcerer of Deathbird Mountain: The cover will identify this as fantasy at a glance. The theme is buried several layers deep, never expressed. Readers will wake in the night and say, “Hey! That’s what it was about!”
    Higgins vs HIggins: A ventriloquist takes his dummy to court to get a divorce. Both parties are acting pro se. Even I don’t know the theme.

    • I love the idea of a power word. And you give some splendid examples of how this works. Sometimes a single singular word can make a title.

      Sorcerer (!) of Deathbird (!!) Mountain. I’d crack this one open.
      Call of a Distant (!) Song. (Just that one word adds depth)
      Unforsaken. One word titles can be powerful.

      One idea I’ve heard is to just create index cards of power words that might relate to your story. Stick them up on a wall and start mixing and matching.

      Thanks for weighing in! good stuff.

      • Thanks! I have an entire spreadsheet of power words, with about 160 entries. I’m wondering if something similar could be created to embody theme?? Words like soul, spirit, yearning, passion, etc? Maybe not. It’s tricksy. Call of a Distant Song is definitely thematic, but no single word carries the theme; it’s the combination that does it. Explicitly, the theme is humans’ desire for transcendence, but putting “transcendence” in the title seems a bit grandiloquent. OTOH, “midlife crisis” goes too far the other direction, in my mind. As PJ says above, “This is the hardest and deepest level to plumb.”

        • Ha! Yeah, try getting “Transcendence” past your editor for a title. “Ah, that’s all we have room for on your cover…”

  2. So very true. So important.

    Pride can be a virtue. Pride is a sin. A lion’s pride includes lionesses and cubs.

    One of the themes of my trilogy is how the children matter, how grownups make decisions around them, how it matters who brings them up and how they’re brought up.

    And in many ways, Pride’s Children is a retelling of The Book of Job, and of the sorrow that comes almost unnoticed by Job when he gets his wealth and children back: they are not the same children.

    Sol Stein, in On Writing, talks about ‘Increasing the effect on the reader through resonance’ in Chapter 31 – and gives many examples. I haven’t looked at titles the same way since.

    Here’s where resonance helps – the biblical quote was just what I needed:
    “He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.”
    Job 41:34, KJV

    And it being June, I just posted ‘A relevant little story about copyrighting titles’ ( – and how I’m happy to share a title with a different story about children and pride.

    • A good example, Alicia, of how writers often find rich titles in other sources of literature, poems, the Bible, popular music…

      My first book’s working title was The Last Rose of Summer. (it’s about the protag’s search of his racial identity while he solves a decades-old lynching in the South). Terrible title; it says nothing and captures nothings. The book was finished when I vaguely recalled a Langstan Hughes poem I had been taught in college. Took me forever to find it again but it was perfect. It’s called “Silhouette” and here’s the opening lines:

      Southern gentle lady, Do not swoon.
      They’ve just hung a black man in the dark of the moon.

      Dark of the Moon was my title. The Hughes estate kindly gave me legal permission to include it in an epigraph.

      • Cambridge University granted me permission to use my King James Version quotes – they ask for a specific wording.

        Most people ignore the fact that the crown owns the copyright in perpetuity.

    • Great comment. Job is, of course, a metaphor, an explication of the G*d of the OT. But, though the passage doesn’t say, one way or the other, merely hints, it’s possible that Job’s seven sons and three daughters who died have been reincarnated as the seven sons and three daughters whom G*d sends him.

      [Carl Jung wrote “Answer to Job” in 1952. It’s quite heretical, but is an interesting take on this chapter.]

  3. I think if I could hire out only one skill (okay, not counting my editor), it would be someone to write my titles. They’re almost always the last thing I come up with. I can’t decide if it’s harder to have a ‘start from scratch’ title or one that’s part of a series where I’ve locked myself into a pattern. My Mapleton books are all two word titles, starting with “Deadly”. It’s a challenge to find the right second word. But after 11 titles in the series, I don’t think I can break the pattern. I think I’ll be tunneling to China for the title of my current wip. I’m 30K words in and have no idea what the theme is yet.

    • I seldom have a title going in, Terry. I think often the book has to tell what it is about before you can find a title. And at least once, I had no title after I handed it in to my editor. He had a thing for three-word titles so our Louis series has this mini-trend — Island of Bones, Dead of Winter, Paint It Black…etc. The one I wished I had worked harder on was Thicker Than Water. (ie blood is…) that was a stinker. 🙂

      • “Thicker Than Water” is a good way to evoke the idea of blood without saying it. Jubilee Jakes, my rude, aphorism-ranting villain in House of a Thousand Spiders, says, “Blood is thicker’n water, but snot has ‘em both beat.”

    • “I think I’ll be tunneling to China for the title of my current wip.”

      Deadly Fortune? [Yes, I know. Fortune cookies are really Japanese.]

      “I’m 30K words in and have no idea what the theme is yet.”

      Perfectly okay. It will make itself known when you hit 60K. I’ve shared before the story of the film project where the movie was already “in the can” when the director and AD realized as they viewed the edited footage that the theme was not what they’d thought. They fixed it by redoing the music sound track and making a few minor edits to emphasize the new theme.

      • Yup…you can’t get hung up on theme early. It often doesn’t show up until you’re almost done with the darn thing. Then it becomes a nagging presence until you go back and give it its due.

          • Yeah, like who done it? Seriously, I changed the villain in one book when I got to chapter 40. Needless to say, major rewrites.

  4. Such an important subject, Kris. Your post gave it the respect it’s due. Coming up with a great title is work, and is worth the skull sweat and effort involved.

    My library mystery originally had the working title of Death Due. It felt generic. I’d played around with “Due Death” and “Overdue Due Death,” and those were even blander. I leaned into brainstorming after finishing the draft of the original version, and eventually came up with A Shush Before Dying, a riff off of Ira Levin’s <A Kiss Before Dying. “A Shush” because, while shushing by library staff was going away or had gone away by the mid-1980s (depending upon where you were), library patrons still did it when things got noisy. It also referred to the “shush” of the killing and the particular murder method.

    The sequel’s title is a play on words: Book Drop Dead which again, has thematic meaning in the context of the novel as well as being a play off of the library term “Book Drop” (with a second, plot meaning in that term) and the expression “Drop Dead.”

    Titles are worth the work.

    Thanks for another keeper of a post. Hope you have a great week.

    • I love a Shush Before Dying! So much more enticing than the first go-arounds.

  5. Titles are tough and as Terry mentioned above, one of the last things I do for my book. I’ve had 1 story where the title came to me almost immediately. But in most cases, I use some terribly non-creative placeholder title like “JakeBook1” as I’m writing. LOL!

    One plug for mystery writing though–it seems somewhat easier to land on titles for mysteries. Many mysteries are written as part of a series and often the titles are themed for recognition-“Murder by….” etc. Once you hit on that thematic play of words for a mystery series, the titles seem to gel. Although I’m sure as a series continues it may get more difficult to keep that theme going and find new title ideas.

    Writing is fun, researching is fun, even editing and revision are fun (though hard work). But picking titles? Yuk.

    • BK,so true that titles for mysteries and thrillers (and romances) tend to follow some patterns that go to branding. They are, I should have pointed out, different than general fiction. But I think that causes some writers (and maybe their editors) to get a little lazy at times. (apologies to John Sanford :)) And for the record, I think Stephen King, given the richness of his stories, has lousy titles. There, I said it.

      • I’m not a consumer of King’s books (Other than “On Writing”) but I’d venture to say with his popularity, no one cares about his titles much because he’s so well known. If he had a book titled “Read This” I’m sure it would sell a ton of copies. LOL!

        This post also piqued my interest in relation to my favorite Zane Grey novel (yes, there she goes again!) “Forlorn River”. That’s kind of a blah title, yes. It represents a physical feature in the story, but theoretically, you could be misguided by the title because it gives the impression of an “all hope is lost” bummer story. When in reality it is quite a hopeful story. So, curious, I checked date of publication. Mr. Grey published some 70 novels I think, and this one pubbed in 1926—-23 years after he started publishing books. So like Stephen King, I don’t think he had to pay much attention to titles.

        But for the rest of us, we definitely need to choose titles with care.

  6. The title of Phillip K. Dick’s original short story that Blade Runner was based on was call “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. I always thought that was a great title.

    • Ditto. That’s why I included it. I love that title. 🙂

      Others that I love:
      East of Eden (Bible)
      The Days of Wine and Roses (Bible)
      Brave New World (The Tempest)
      The Fault In Our Stars (Julius Caesar)
      I Know Why The Cages Bird Sings (poem)
      No Country For Old Men (Yeats)
      Splendor In The Grass. (Wordsworth)

  7. I guess I’m the outlier here. I usually start with the title. Actually, I start with a rough cover design that includes the title and then revise as needed along the way. I’m a visual person, so I need to “see” it.

    And there’s another issue these days, especially for Indies: How does it look as a thumbnail? Does it stand out in a crowded field? Which is why I favor short titles like 1-3 words max. One is best. My most popular book is titled “NEANDER.” Can you guess what it’s about?

    Good topic!

  8. The original title for my WIP, a soft boiled humorous mystery, was The Curious Case of Fatal Flatulence, but my wife convinced me that I’d be nuts to go with that one for my story of a neurotic amnesiac who’s only hope for discovering his true identity is by solving the murder of a man who died when his outhouse exploded.

    So, now I’m going with The Mystery of Mr. Who, since that’s the name he gets through happenstance after coming to in (and escaping from) a coffin at the beginning of the story.

    • Whelp, I admit to having a scatological humor gene so I kinda liked the title. Could have been worse (Breaking Wind Bad?). You should thank your wife, I think. 🙂

      I like The Mystery of Mr. Who. Has a soupcon of alliteration and some question marks.

  9. Great topic, Kris. And timely for me. I’m still trying to come up with the right title for my new Lady Pilot-in-Command series book #1. The working title is Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel because Lacey was a young girl who mysteriously died forty years before the story takes place, and a star is an important element in solving the mystery. But I need to think about this. Here are a few candidates:

    The Language of Stars
    Do Stars Only Come Out at Night?
    All but the Brightest Stars (from a quote by J.R.R. Tolkein “Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.”)

    Any thoughts?

    • I know it’s long but I really like the last one. The first one sounds non-fictiony. Lacey’s Star feels generic. Stephen King wrote this terrific love story fantasy called “Lisey’s Story” and the title just lays there, imho. The star is your talisman here. I’d keep working around that.

      • Just for fun, I Googled poems about stars. Found this:

        “The Lost Star” by Rabindranath Tagore

        “Where the lost star had gone.
        Everybody said,
        ‘It was the star which brightened the heavens most
        It was the biggest and the best.’

    • I like “All but the Brightest Stars” too. It piques your curiosity and makes you wonder what the book is about.

  10. Don’t know if I should point it out, but the titles in your examples seem to have been changed based on race lines. Mongolia is in Asia, while Bohemia is another word for Irish (if you guys didn’t know, Freddy Mercury was Hindu and his name was Faruq). And brown-skinned girl (well, you can see the race in that. White people can have brown eyes, the radio clearly wanted to cater to them.)

    • Yes, some of this occurred to me and I knew the Irish connection. Morrison’ change was clearly done to appease censors. I don’t know why Mercury changed it. Mercury being a poet, I chose to believe he thought it just sounded better. “Mongolian” just lays heavily on the tongue. “Bohemian” has a…well, lilt, to it. Titles need a touch of music, imho.

  11. Great topic, Kris. Wonderful examples, esp. ones that traced the evolution to the final title. Like Terry, I’d love to hire a title creator.

    I had a perfect title for my latest book. DEEP FAKE was short, punchy, timely, had a thriller vibe and nailed the subject. However, a month before mine was published, another author (bestseller) released a new book titled…Deep Fake.


    Timing is everything.

    My focus group came up with multiple suggestions. I chose Deep Fake Double Down. While giving a book talk, I discovered that’s a tongue twister. But that’s the way it is.

    • But it does stack nicely, doesn’t it? I may amend my “1-3 words max” rule to be “1-4”. 😉

    • Yeah, I’ve had titled killed because someone (usually famous) got there first. The year our book A Killing Rain came out, Barry Eisler published his John Rain series book Killing Rain.

      A couple years later, I had a story in an MWA anthology called “One Shot.” The same month Lee Child published his Reacher book One Shot. My title referred to a man haunted by the gun-suicide of his boyhood friend and goes back to his old home because he thinks he has “one shot” to make things right. Lee’s title comes from the sniper’s credo “one shot, one kill.” Lee came up to me at Bouchercon and said, “You stole my title.” I was mortified (didn’t know him back then) Then he said, “It’s a good title, isn’t it. Let me buy you a drink.”

  12. Titles need to be speakable as well. “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” does not roll off the tongue. Great books though.

    I know not everyone sets out to write a series, but serial titles for a series makes a great deal of sense. Sue Grafton would be the queen of this.

  13. I could kick myself. Back in the day I had some poster inserts from Variety. One was a book of 11 x 17 poster stock posters of the years upcoming movies. “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”‘ “ET”, “Close Encounters” and a few others.

    The other was a fold out of the new Star Wars film. Star Wars in re-release, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in re-release and then a fold out for movie three, Star Wars Revenge of the Jedi. By the time it hit screens it had toned down and became Return of the Jedi.

    • Not being a Star Wars fan, I get confused by all their titles. But do they matter with such a popular franchise? I always like the title “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” but didn’t know what it referred to initially. But here goes:
      UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek defined three kinds of close encounter:

      “close encounter of the first kind”: visual sighting of UFO.

      “close encounter of the second kind”: a physical effect, such as electronic interference or animals reacting, or a physiological effect.

      “close encounter of the third kind”: the presence of an animated creature, such as a humanoid, robot, or apparent UFO pilot.

      • Keeping Star Wars movies straight is hard for “gray hairs” like me. I saw the great space opera, Star Wars in 1977. Before it had made gazillion dollars and became a trilogy of trilogies.

        COVID did give me and my eldest child the chance to watch the complete Star Wars. Phantom Menace is still offensively racist and a terrible movie.

  14. Titles are so important that I often think of a title first before a story idea itself. It’s my inspirational spark.

    • Agree! Only once did I have a title before the story. (She’s Not There, from the old Zombies song). But once I had it, the story flowed as none before. It was such a relief and, oddly, an inspirational spark as you say.

  15. Once you think of a great title it is a good idea to see if it’s been used before.

    An Amazon search is a good way to go. F’rinstance, the title “City of Glass” has been used by three different writers on three different books, and I can’t understand why the latest iteration, a sci/fi fantasy thing, shows up on Amazon unless that writer intended to have it show up when someone’s looking for the genuine article.
    Either way, there’s something fishy about it.

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