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Hello, fabulous Story Nurse! I was wondering if you have any advice about figuring out titles for pieces of writing. I feel like the titles that naturally come to me are either vague and unremarkable (e.g. my story “Free State,” which is about a queer woman shapeshifter in Bleeding Kansas, but you wouldn’t know that from the title) or entirely too on-the-nose (e.g. I was trying to come up with a working title for my novel-in-progress so I can put it on my CV, and the best thing I could come up with was “Stolen Sisters,” which is kind of okay, I guess, but one of the inciting incidents of the story is the protagonist’s sister getting abducted, so again, it feels a little obvious). As a result, then, any advice you might have about titles would be most welcome!
—What’s in a Name (she/her)
Dear What’s in a Name,
This is definitely a challenge, and it can feel like a really big challenge. A title is your very first interaction with the reader, and it carries significant weight. But if you think of it as communication, rather than as a summary that is somehow meant to encompass everything the story is while not giving anything important away, that can help you decide how to shape it.
As always when considering how best to communicate, it’s important to know who your audience is—meaning the end reader, even if your first audience will be an agent or editor. What does your audience know about you? What context do they have for your work? What context do they have outside of your work? (For example, if your title is a quote or riff on a movie title or song lyric, will your readers know the original and get the joke?) What will they expect from a book in your genre, and what will surprise them? What are they looking for in a book, and how can you tell them that your book has what they’re looking for?
It might help to analyze the titles of other books that share your book’s genre and general vibe. What do they have in common? Which ones do you especially like? How do they tie into the story? What are they trying to communicate, and what do they keep hidden?
One of the things your title probably doesn’t need to communicate aggressively is genre. If you’re submitting a story to a science fiction magazine, it will be clear to the editor that you’ve written science fiction; if that magazine publishes your story, the magazine’s readers will know to expect science fiction to appear in its pages. If you’re publishing a book, your book will be shelved in a particular section of a bookstore and have those handy genre labels tacked onto it on Amazon, and you’ll also have cover art to help make the genre clear. So unless you’re trying to sell a story to a venue that doesn’t usually publish that type of work (“Dear editors of Fish & Game Magazine, I am writing to submit my story ‘Whendunit: A Time Travel Mystery’ for your consideration”), you want to emphasize that your book is deeply embedded in the heart of the genre and/or a parody (Captain Space and the Spacernauts, Book 1: Beyond the Limits of Space), or you’re blending genres (Unicorn Faeries from Jupiter), you can let that concern go.
With the genre known up front, you can play around with genre expectations. Consider Daniel José Older’s “Love Is a Fucking River” (one of my all-time favorite titles). That title has zero pretensions. You want to read the story out of sheer admiration for the author going with a title you can’t say on the radio. You want to understand the way the treacly simile of “love is a river” is upended by the expletive. And you want to know what a story about love is doing in a collection of creepy urban fantasy; that genre context opens up all sorts of questions that hook the reader hard.
The style of the title will set expectations for the style of the work. Rose Lemberg’s “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is in one sense titled very simply—it’s named after an object in the story, which is about as basic as a title gets—but the unfamiliar structure of the name “Grandmother-nai-Leylit” and the unusual juxtaposition of “cloth” and “winds” tell you that this is a story where you should expect to be surprised. It also has an elegant rhythm that hints at the lyrical prose of the story.
Some titles set up puzzles for the reader. From the title, one has no idea what John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is about—maybe a military campaign in East Africa? You have to read the book to understand that the phrase refers to an extended metaphor for overpopulation. That puzzle will pull some readers in and put others off; it says that this is a puzzling book that’s going to require some effort on the reader’s part.
A good way to balance a puzzle title is with words that are loaded with emotion and connotation, such as in James Tiptree Jr.’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” You have no idea what that story is about, and the lack of a comma between the clauses suggests (accurately) that the language of it is going to be a little weird, but it’s got love and death and that sounds powerful and interesting.
If your instinct is to go with short titles, then you can double down on that as a demonstration of your confidence in your work. Stephen King did this with “The Mist,” “The Reach,” The Stand, Rage, Insomnia, and, of course, It. Those brief, uninformative titles convey precisely one thing, and that is that the author’s ego is the size of the moon. The reader may be impressed enough to pick up a book or story on the strength of that. The caveat is that you really do have to be a good enough writer to get away with it.
Personally, I find it very appealing when titles take risks. I think every title I’ve cited here shows the author (or publisher) taking a risk in some way. Going solely by title, I’d much rather read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” than watch Arrival; I’d much rather read Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill than watch Edge of Tomorrow. Interesting titles raise questions and make me want to know the answers. Bland titles turn me off. So I encourage you to be bold and take some risks with your own titles, even if you don’t have a King-size sense of your own brilliance.
Finally, on the purely commercial front, I recommend searching both Google and Goodreads for any title you choose. Unless you deliberately go the moon-ego route, you should try to come up with a title that’s unique, or one of very few. You also want to avoid awkward connotations (which is why you always always google made-up fantasy names to make sure they’re not real words in a language you don’t know) and stepping on other people’s toes. For example, Goodreads lists several books called Stolen Sister or Stolen Sisters, the most prominent of which is about murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. Out of respect for those women and the people working very hard to raise awareness of their deaths and disappearances, I think picking another title is the way to go.
I don’t know a thing about your novel in progress, but taking Stolen Sisters as a starting point, here are some places you could go with it:
- Personal and intimate: They Stole My Sister; A Sister’s Grief; The Loss of a Sister
- Eerie: The Stolen Sister (reminds me of Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, another great provocative title)
- Dramatic: When She Vanished (I instantly visualized a Nancy Bush romantic thriller cover)
- Action-focused: Sister Seeker
- Funny: Lost: One Sister ($500 Reward!)
- Poignant: Are You My Sister?
- Self-conscious: Sundered Sisters
- Intriguing and concise: Sister, Lost
- Intriguing and flowery: The Sister-Thieves My Heart Have Sundered
- Moon-ego: Sister
I hope that gives you some sense of the possibilities and the ways to transmute an ordinary draft title into something special. Enjoy, and good luck with your WIP!