What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
-Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
I cannot give my character the moniker “Tim the Barbarian”. Especially since he’s the bard.
-#378 of the Things Mr. Welch Can No Longer Do During an RPG
Ever had the feeling that the perfect title is eluding you? While Shakespeare assures us names are not the defining aspect of a thing, Mr. Welch’s counterargument also carries a lot of weight. Nine times out of ten, the name of your story will be the first thing about it that your reader encounters. That makes the name of your story a vital part of making a good impression and attracting the attention of potential readers.
Unfortunately, unlike a lot of aspects of writing, there’s not a lot of good, solid, repeatable methods you can use for story titles. You want something high imact, that will stick with your audience. But you can’t contradict the basic spirit of your story either – you can’t use Gory Deadly Overkill Title of Fatal Death for a romance and Super Fun Happy Thing of Doom only works if you’re trying to be ironic. You can’t use any titles you’ve used before, and you can’t use any titles that other people have used for very popular stories (unless you’re doing a mashup, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
One of the most common strategies to coming up with titles is to develop a theme. The novels in the InCryptid series are all jokes based on the fact that the main characters’ last name is “Price”. Thus, Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special and next year’s Half-Off Ragnarok. You never have any doubts that your dealing with an InCryptid novel when you look at the title, but they don’t actually tell you much about what happens in them. On the other hand, the Cal Leandros series relies on single, high impact compound word to catch your attention and tell you a bit about what happens in the course of the story. Nightlife is your introduction to the world. Moonshine has werewolves in it. Roadkill is about a road trip (but not a fun one, exactly.)
Other themes include Sue Grafton’s alphabet soup series, which I’m sure has a proper name, but I’ve never read one of them, and the “Character name and X” convention (Mr. Monk goes to the Hospital and Immediately Leaves That Den of Filth and Iniquity) or simply naming the story after what takes place in it, such as the Peculiar Occurrences novels The Order of the Phoenix and the Janus Affair. The problem with embracing a theme is that once your dedicated to it, you have to stick with it or your audience will object to your breaking away from it.
And your theme may not be as deep or meaningful a well of inspiration as you had hoped. Chapters in Heat Wave get their titles based on which character is narrating. Chapters where Helix narrates get titles with a theme of heat or fire, while chapters that feature Circuit have titles with an electronic theme. Except when both characters narrate a significant part of the chapter, in which case I have to try and find some overlap between their themes. So far that’s worked but I’m not sure how many more chapters I’ll be able to find good titles for. Originally I had thought the title might reflect the events of the chapter to some extent, but that’s mostly fallen by the wayside at this point.
So naming your story. It’s a struggle, for most of us I think. But if you know a surefire way to come up with a great title every time, don’t hold out on us. Share it in the comments and let us in on the secret.