Why Finding a Good Book Title Is So Hard
The idea for this article started after finishing the latest draft of a story I was working on.
After changing some of the major parts of the story, I realized that the title I had originally chosen was no longer a good fit. It needed to be changed to better represent the story it had now become.
But no matter how long I thought about it, nothing good came to mind! I had spent hours, days, and weeks of my time honing and refining my story… only to be completely out of “creative juice” when it came time to choose a book title.
After browsing around and coming up with a few ideas, I quizzed a couple wordsmiths at my local writer’s group… and I realized that they were running into the exact same problem!
I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time coming up with unique and interesting titles for my books, other writers were having trouble too… and sometimes even the best guys at character and plot struggled to come up with a cool title.
Despite there being a ton of information available on plot, character, and outlines, there really wasn’t any good information on coming up with spectacular book titles. Most of those other books don’t even mention anything about titling your story!
That’s because your story’s title is so unique to your story. It’s hard for most people to offer solid advice on the title for your book without knowing anything about the story it tells.
Why Your Book Title Is So Important
So what’s in a title? Is it really that important?
You bet your by-golly it is. Titles carry meaning for what they are representing. Imagine you worked in the back of a restaurant. Would you rather be called a “dishwasher” or a “Dish Machine Operator” — which one sounds better to you?
There’s a reason Subway calls their employees sandwich “artists” and not sandwich makers. One sounds commonplace, while the other sounds impressive.
Every year tons of scripts and novels have their title changed to better represent the story. Here are some famous movies you might be familiar with that got re-named last minute:
Alien (1979) was originally called – Star Beast
Dodgeball (2004) was supposed to be called – Underdog
Pretty Woman (1990) almost hit the screens as – 3000. Why? Because that’s how much her character charged for one night alone with her.
Yeah… I think they made the right choice on that one…
Those original titles weren’t that good and didn’t make it clear what the story was about. Your title is the first thing the reader will see when he picks up your book. And you only get one chance to make a first impression. So make it a good one!
Remember that a poor title usually indicates a poor story. Titles aren’t window dressing… They are hooks to get people interested in reading your story. A catchy title can make a great first impression on readers, publishers, and agents alike.
But a stupid, silly, or boring title can do just the opposite. It can turn the reader off before they even know what your story is about. So it’s important you choose a solid, original and creative title for your work.
How do you do it?
Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when thinking of possible titles for your book.
Three Rules For Good Book Titles
Rule #1: Book Titles Shouldn't Be Boring
Imagine you’re in a Hollywood mall waiting on the elevator, when suddenly, the doors slide open and… BOOM! Steven Spielberg is standing there right in front of you!
After a moment of complete shock, you stumble into the elevator. Your heart is racing because you’ve just completed your final draft of a story that you’ve worked so long and hard on. You can’t wait to tell him about it! Here’s your chance to pitch it to the biggest director in Hollywood history!
You ramble on for a few minutes that it’s about a sacred tree that whispers to people as they walk by and tells them the secrets of life.
He says it sounds like an interesting idea, and asks you what it’s called. You tell him that’s the best part! It’s already got a killer title! It’s called “The Tree.”
Do I even need to tell you what happens next?
When you browse Netflix looking for a movie to watch, would you watch a movie called “The Tree”? Wouldn’t you agree there are at least a million better names for that story?
Not that “The Tree” wouldn’t be well written. But stories with more interesting titles stand a better chance of getting read.
Rule #2: Book Titles Should Be Easy To Remember
Not only do you want your book’s title to stand out in the reader’s mind, you want it to stay there too. The shorter the better. So don’t include a bunch of long, hard-to-pronounce words with a ton of syllables in it.
“The Pusillanimous Case of My Unencumbered Spirit” may be the best damn thing you’ve ever written… but no one is going to want to read it.
If you story’s title makes it sound unappealing, it probably is.
Rule #3: Book Titles Should Be Appropriate
Let’s say you’ve got a story about a bunch of snakes a plane. Think of all the possibilities there were for a great title.
“Snakes on a Plane” was a little obvious and uncreative, but it’s quite fitting for a story about snakes on a plane. Think of all the other terrible names it could have ended up with…
That might work, but it’s too close to the Anaconda movie from 1997.
“The Flight That’s Got Bite”…
Yep, another wack title. Let’s try something else:
“Ssssssss” (Don’t say it, hiss it!)
Ok, well that’s a little overboard, but I hope you get the point. Don’t name your story something stupid or silly like those above. With a little creativity and the tips I’m about to share, you’re sure to come up with something better.
10 Mistakes Writers Make When Choosing A Book Title
I recommend you avoid these mistakes at all costs. While they might turn out a good title every now and then, most often you’ll just get garbage. And no one wants their work tossed in the trash bin. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Book Title Mistake #1: Being Too Direct or Unimaginative
Sometimes it’s like the writer was completely out of creative juice when it came time to title their story.
They take the lazy way out and slap on the most direct and obvious title they can think of. And the sales often suffer because of it.
Take a look at some of these naming blunders:
Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid!! (1986)
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Surfer, Dude (2008)
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
These titles are too literal about the content of the story the represent. They all could’ve done a better job. Snakes on a plane only worked because it was poking fun at itself and had Samuel Jackson in it. Without him it probably would’ve bombed.
Book Title Mistake #2: Using Too Much Punctuation
Some titles use too many periods, commas, and colons in their titles. It makes the “flow” of the title sound too jerky and interrupted.
Often the premise could’ve been communicated with a much simpler title. Try to resist the temptation if it strikes you.
Here are some examples:
The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard. (2009)
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)
These stories could’ve got the idea across with much shorter titles. “Deal Hard” and “Drag Kings” would’ve been much better.
Book Title Mistake #3: Using Odd Spelling of Common Words
This blunder plagued anyone who had a childhood in the 90’s. Tons of toy companies started replacing S’s with Z’s in an attempt to look cool and hip to the kids of that generation. And actually, it was a huge hit in that decade.
But if you do it today, it’ll look outdated and childish. People will start rolling their eyes before they ever turn to page one.
Here are some quite ridiculous examples:
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
Zyzzyx Rd (2006)
Still think Zyzzyx Road is a cool title? Audiences didn’t. It’s one of the lowest grossing movies of all time: $30… that’s right… 30. Not $30 million. Ouch.
Book Title Mistake #4: Using Words That Paint An Unpleasant Picture
Some writers must have been asleep at the wheel when they came up with their story’s title. Didn’t they run it by anyone before releasing it to the public? Surely someone would have stopped them.
Some of these are absolutely horrendous! They paint all kinds of unpleasant pictures in your mind, even if they’re exactly what the movie is about!
Here are some of the worst:
I Dismember Mama (1972)
Teenage Catgirls in Heat (1994)
Step Into Liquid (2003)
The Human Stain (2003)
The Constant Gardener (2005)
“I Dismember Mama?” All that title does is make me think of killing MY Mama! No Bueno!
Throw Momma From The Train (1987) is a much better way to get an idea like that across.
Step Into Liquid (2003) is a documentary about secret surfing spots from around the world. But it makes me think of stepping in a muddy pool of cold water when I’m out grabbing the morning paper. Eww! Yucky!
What would’ve been a much better title? Get Wet. But let’s face it, that could’ve gone just as wrong too.
And “The Constant Gardener?” Can he not stop gardening? Always pruning and shearing, keeping the grass as green as possible?!
Your title will paint a picture in the audience’s mind when they hear it. So make sure it’s not a bad one.
Book Title Mistake #5: Using Sound Effects
Ok but seriously… this is not as cool as it seems.
Unless you’re creating a comic book back in the 1960’s, you should avoid this type of title at all costs.
Please, oh please, don’t do this to your story.
I mean, c’mon… really? Is that the best they could come up with?
Book Title Mistake #6: Using Weird Words That Make No Sense
Some stories aim to stand out from the crowd by using titles that are unique and unusual. But not in a good way.
Fun? Yes. Cheeky? Absolutely. Good idea? Not at all.
Here are some examples to show you what I mean:
The Perils of Gwendoline In the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984)
Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell (1990)
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)
This is a trend for a lot of new children’s movies. Writers hope to attract child audiences by naming their characters and settings like they’re something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
And for the most part, they will. But if your story isn’t aimed at an audience that eats chicken nuggets and chocolate milk for lunch, stay away from using this type of strategy.
Book Title Mistake #7: Making Your Title Too Long
People in today’s fast paced world have shorter attention spans than ever. It’s estimated that the average attention span is eight seconds.
EIGHT SECONDS!!! That’s it! That’s all the time you have to catch someone’s attention and keep them interested.
In fact, it’s often said that the best-selling novels have titles with three words or less. Less is more.
Here are some terribly long titles that are also terribly ridiculous:
Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963)
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995)
There’s no way in hell you can tell me the writer couldn’t have come up something shorter. Love Sucks, Zombies Attack, and The Englishman… bing, bang, boom.
Book Title Mistake #8: Being Too Over The Top
These stories suffer from their premise being too over the top more than anything else. But sometimes when you go all the way with your premise, there’s little wiggle room left for a good title.
On that note, having a great title for your story won’t help you if the premise actually sucks. If your story stinks, it doesn’t matter what you call it.
And if your story has you headed that way, steer clear in another direction! You’re headed right over a cliff!
Here are some laughable silly ones:
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990)
Book Title Mistake #9: Using Unknown Acronyms
If you ask me, titles like this are L.A.M.E.
And I’m not talking about Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers either!
This generally only works if the acronym is already well known by the public. Or, it will EASILY become apparent early into the story.
If it’s not, it’ll confuse everyone. They’ll spend the entire time wondering what the hell you meant instead of enjoying the story.
Here are some of the worst:
C.H.U.D. (1984) = Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller
BAPS (1997) = Black American Princess (what about the S?)
F.A.R.T.: The Movie (1991) = ???
…I still have no idea what F.A.R.T. is supposed to stand for.
Book Title Mistake #10: Making Unintended Word Associations
This one is similar to Mistake #4: Using Words That Paint An Unpleasant Picture.
Our subconscious mind is at work at all times. It can’t help but take us to the deep, dark recesses of our mind when certain words are uttered.
If you’re not careful, you might unwittingly force people to think of something that’s completely unrelated.
Sometimes it’s a little dirty, and sometimes it’s just outright crazy.
Three of the films below should be pretty self-explainable:
Freddy Got Fingered (2001)
Avenging Disco Vampires (2001)
When I hear a title like “Avenging Disco Vampires”, my mind can’t help but bring up images of the cast from Twilight wearing bell bottoms and glittered sunglasses, kickin’ it to the 70’s with John Travolta.
That’s not the kind of picture you want someone imagining when they’re deciding whether to read your story. So be careful with your word choices when choosing a title.
For the most part, you can avoid a lot of these mistakes by running your title by a friend before you finish the story. That’s all it takes to avoid a major mishap in the writing process.
8 Steps To Finding The Perfect Book Title
What follows is a process for using these methods to help you come up with an original, fitting title for your book.
Step #1: Gain Some Inspiration From Good Book Titles
A good place to start is by browsing movie and book titles and looking for something that catches your attention. What titles piqued your interest?
Was it a turn on a common phrase? (Idea #10)
Was it a metaphor or analogy that intrigued you to figure out what it means? (Idea #5)
Did it use alliteration or rhyming that made it catchy and easy to remember? (Idea #18)
By browsing other stories that are already filmed or published, you can easily draw some inspiration for your own title.
And all the information is readily available online. Just check out Amazon or IMDb to browse thousands of titles for stories already made.
Step #2: Write Out All Your Book Title Ideas
You probably have a few ideas for a title, and might have given the story a working title when you started writing. Is that name still fitting? Are any of the names that come off the top of your head a good fit?
Try seeing if you can modify any of them using the 25 Book Title Ideas and turn it into something that fits your story.
Chances are something you’ve already been marinating on is pretty good. Write down as many of those ideas as you can and see which one works best for you.
Think of a couple adjectives, nouns and verbs that describe your story or your favorite parts of it. Write them all down on and combine them into different phrases. See if any of them help you come up with some new title ideas.
Step #3: Use The Book Title Generator
If you’re still stuck, go through the list of the 25 Book Title Ideas one at a time and come up with five story titles for each method. By the time you’re done, you’ll have over one hundred different titles to choose from!
If more than five ideas come to you for a certain method, great! Keep on going. Lists of 300+ unique and original titles are not uncommon. The more the better. You’ll eventually find the perfect one.
Step #4: Use A Thesaurus
Use a thesaurus and see if you can find better adjectives, verbs and nouns to use in your title. The punchier and more direct they are, the better. This will help you brainstorm thousands of more ideas for variations.
This is hands down the best thesaurus you will find… EVER!
For example, “death” and “demise” are two additional ways for saying “murder.” You could also potentially use “end”, “ruin”, or “downfall” as well.
The possibilities with this strategy are endless.
Step #5: Narrow Down Your List Of Ideas
You’ve probably already got a top ten list for titles in mind. Maybe even a top five or top three. Certain titles are going to stick out to you more than others.
Narrow your list down as much as you can. Start by eliminating the ones that have no connection to the story. And then get rid of the ones that you know aren’t the best fit.
If you have a lot to choose from, start with a top 50 and then narrow it down by the following increments.
And… Finally #1! You’ve found it!
This process of elimination will help you identify your favorites for your story. By eliminating a few at a time, you’ll get closer and closer to finding out the perfect title for your book.
Step #6: Ask For Feedback
If you’ve narrowed the list down and still can’t choose, try asking your friends which one they like best.
Give them a list of options, tell them what the story is about. When they give you feedback, be sure to ask them why they choose a certain title over another. The reasons why they liked or disliked a certain title to be quite unexpected and surprising.
Once you’ve gotten the opinions of several friends, there might be a clear favorite among them. That’s probably a good choice for a title, so you should strongly consider it.
Step #7: Take Some Time Off
You’ve done the hard work, now relax. Forget about it. You’ve spent enough time thinking about it for now. Give it some time for the answer to become clear to you.
Imagine what the movie poster or book jacket would look like with the various titles you’ve chosen. Does one stick out to you? Does one seem better than the others?
Over the next few days, you’ll form a gut feeling of which title sounds best. You might have had this feeling about it all along, but now you’ll know it’s the best one.
Trust your intuition and choose the title that feels right to you. It may be the title that you’ve been working with all along. And it may be something you never would have expected. But whatever it is, it’ll feel right to you.
Step #8: Remain Flexible
Be open to changing your book title if later on you realize something else would fit better. You might rewrite a major part of your story and discover that the title you went with is no longer a good fit.
In that case, just start the process over again. In no time you’ll have another unique, original and interesting title for your story.
Also realize that the publishing company or movie studio that buys your story might decide to change the name anyway. It’s always a marketing decision based on the belief that a certain title title will lead to more sales.
So don’t take it personally. Your story is still out there moving audiences around the world. After all, isn’t that what’s most important? The story is still the same the same no matter what it’s called, so don’t worry about it.
What If Your Book Title Is Already Taken?
Well, in that case it gets a little tricky. Generally the best advice is to avoid using an identical or similar title to one that’s already out there.
BUT, the law isn’t so cut-and-dried.
(I am not an attorney. So make sure to seek your own legal advice!)
As far as I know, titles aren’t protected by copyright law. Some titles are protected by Trademark and Unfair Competition law though. But not every title gets that kind of protection.
These laws deal with protecting the public against confusion. For example, let’s say you titled your story “Halloween”. It’s reasonable to expect that the public might consider your story be another release in the series of films that make up the “Halloween” horror franchise.
But, if you were to choose a title of a very old, very obscure film, that kind of confusion is much less likely. So it depends on the particular title on question. And whether people will be confused into believing that it’s a remake, sequel, or related to the project in any way.
In general, It’s better to just use one of the other methods I’ve shown you to come up with something original.
If the movie studio or publisher that buys your story thinks there will be any potential legal conflict, they’re going to change the name anyway. So be original in the first place and don’t let some goof name your script something terrible!
And don’t worry, I’ve already shown you a process for creating hundreds of possible titles for your story. So you’ll surely be able to come up with something unique and original.