A classic novel is nothing without a classic title. A good title can become synonymous with good fiction even if you haven’t read the book. No doubt the population of the world who haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye have no idea what the title refers to, but are still well aware that it is the name of an important piece of literature. Titling a novel is an art-form, often as difficult as writing the novel itself. It has to raise questions, effectively represent the novel’s themes, and has to be unique. Personally, I rarely come away from a novel with an immediate idea of what it should be called, and am loathed to try and think of a name. What makes a good novel title?
1. What not to call a novel
As with much in life, an easy way to learn how to do something is to first look at how not to do it. A novel title shouldn’t be clichéd, a commonly used expression or name, or something that has been done before. There’s a grim culture of copycat books in the world now, basing their entire business on writing titles similar to famous ones – have a quick look on Amazon and see just how many people are trying to ride on the coat-tails of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Trying to snaffle up the crumbs of a greater title is a business in itself, but it’s retrospective trickery, not literature. If you want to be known for your own work, and have some kind of writing integrity, you’ll want your title to stand out as unique. You want your novel title to be your novel, representing meaningful themes. Not a rip-off, not something that’s been done before.
Avoiding a clichéd title has been most trying for me when naming The Bayeux Enigma. Its working title was Psycho Killer, which I thought was great because it worked on a number of levels. The main character is a psychotic killer, but he is also a killer of psychos. And, on a deeper level, it was arguable that love kills the psycho in him. Yes, I thought, students will be discussing the ingenious multiple layers of this novel title for many years to come. There was only one problem: it’d been done about two dozen times before. And none of them are famous for it. That tells you something. No, I knew I would need something more original. I could never have seriously used that title, and never even told anyone it, ashamed at how unoriginal it was.
You have to be vigilant in the novel-titling game. This article from the Guardian is a good bit of further discussion about the pit-falls of bad novel titles.
2. Making the title unique
Avoiding the common phrases highlighted in that Guardian article is a start in making your title unique. Any expression with existing associations is a bad idea if you want your novel title to be remembered, and it follows that a general phrase is never really going to have a solid connection to your novel. Psycho Killer might have worked for my novel, but it could also have worked for a thousand others.
The quickest route to a unique novel title comes from including original names from the novel. Character names, locations and lore within the novel are good places to start. Most of the great titles from history have this to thank for being unique: Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch (all the Ms, of course). Finnegan’s Wake, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights.
The alternative is using plot points or themes of the novels, which can be more difficult to make unique. They can still point to an object within the book, like Dream of the Red Chamber or The Death of Artemio Cruz. Phrases, such as The Sound and The Fury or Pride and Prejudice are much more difficult to do successfully. They need to be unique but at the same time encapsulate the novel. For an exercise in attempting to find a phrase for your own, try this article.
Novel characters and places are responsible for my most successful titles: Wixon’s Day is named after a piece of original lore from the post-apocalyptic world of Estalia, and I knew it was a perfect summary of my novel’s themes from the offset. Gun City Bohemian uses a hyperbolic term being used for Nottingham at the time, where it is set, to make the title unique.
3. Memorable novel titles
A novel title should stand on its own merits, conjuring mystery and engagement from the offset. A good character title or allusion to a dramatic turn of events is one way to achieve this, especially if they are developed effectively within the novel itself. Excellent development of the characters and setting make titles referring to them immortal.
Sometimes lengthier titles carry a heavy sense of intrigue, for instance One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Sorrows of Young Werther. That’s a difficult road to tread, common with more old-fashioned writing and certain genres (and one I failed at with my novel The Unread Journal of Supreme Commander Klant, which really didn’t work).
Using lore within the book is a good idea for marketing a novel, because it gets people discussing the plot. Catch 22, now a phrase that is part of the English language, is always likely to be discussed in terms of the examples from the book (similarly The Catcher in the Rye, mentioned at the start, is likely to raise discussion about what it’s all about).
For some truly great examples of memorable book titles, though, I recommend following this link. They might be called the worst book titles, but I guarantee you’ll remember them. And there’s a simple reason for it: they are all unique, and all make you want to know more. They capture your attention, they raise questions and they are uniquely phrased. The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories is my personal favourite.