Did you know that Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why started out with a different title? He had
named it Baker’s Dozen, given Hannah Baker is the main character and she shares thirteen tapes,
with the number thirteen being commonly known as a baker’s dozen. Like most authors, he didn’t really
want to change the title. But r egardless of how you feel about the book, I think most of us will
agree that Thirteen Reasons Why is the more enticing name. It creates intrigue—thirteen
reasons for what? It promises a list, and with thirteen being an unlucky number in many cultures,
it feels ominous, especially when the reader learns the novel is about suicide.
Titles can be short and simple, like The Shining, or they can be long and quirky, as with The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They can evoke the genre in an obvious way, as
in Interview with the Vampire, or feature a title that doesn’t fully make sense until the very end,
like with The Sense of an Ending. Titles shine a spotlight on the heart
of the novel, directing readers’ attention to an important element that thematically ties the
story together. For some writers, coming up with a title is even harder than writing the book.
After analyzing a few hundred novels, I’ve noticed patterns that might help you brainstorm ideas
for a musical, memorable, and marketable title—one
that sounds like poetry to the ear, that readers will easily remember,
and that captures people’s attention. The blog Novel Writing Help recommends
“naming your baby” early on because . . . “1. It’s good for your motivation.
When you give something a name, it always feels more real, more alive.
2. It’s good for the continuing development of the idea—because thinking about what to
call your novel forces you to think hard about what the novel is actually about.”
Titles might relate to a key plot event or element; a character’s name or their role;
an important setting; an allusion to a novel, poem, song, or religious text;
a symbol or metaphor; the story’s primary theme; or a phrase, often one taken from the book itself.
By exploring each of these seven categories, we’ll uncover strategies for titling your own
work in progress. Afterward, we’ll look at marketing considerations for titles.
OPTION ONE: KEY PLOT EVENT OR ELEMENT In many stories, the inciting incident is this
massive event that shapes the entire plot. In The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, which is set
during the Cold War, a Soviet captain goes rogue aboard a submarine carrying ballistic missiles—and
the submarine’s name is Red October. So, if you have that type of dramatic, attention-grabbing
premise, it could be worthy of being your title. Instead of an event, it might be an item that’s
central to the story’s plot, like in The Hatchet or The Notebook. If you’re
writing fantasy or sci-fi, it might be the most distinctive world-building element.
Divergent and Mistborn highlight what makes the protagonist special in terms of their abilities.
The Time Machine and The Andromeda Strain show what sci-fi concept is being explored.
With series, authors often use parallel naming structures, as with The Broken Earth trilogy by
N.K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky. The earth-related word
choices connect back to the series’ focus on characters who can manipulate seismic energy.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang was followed by The Dragon Republic and The Burning God.
Each title highlights an important plot element and contains emotionally charged words
that suggest danger, conflict, and mystery. The series perhaps best known for this naming
strategy is, of course, Harry Potter. For each book, the title contains the person,
place, or thing that’s part of the story’s core mystery, and they all have a fantasy ring to them,
evoking the idea of magic and spurring questions like “What’s the Order of the Phoenix?”
or “Who could the Half-Blood Prince be?” Murder mystery series are also known for using
patterns related to the book’s plot. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series features crime-related words:
A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse. Sometimes it’s more that the titles feel similar,
even if they don’t fit one theme, like with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series, which
often uses a “The (Adjective) (Noun)” pattern: The Big Sleep, The High Window, The Long Goodbye.
If you plan on writing a longer series, consider what type of parallel titles you might use to make
the series feel cohesive and broadcast to readers that the books are part of the same sequence.
Plot-related titles obviously work well with plot-driven novels,
where the story’s hook stems from its exciting premise.
To brainstorm, ask yourself, “How would I describe the main conflict in a few words?”
OPTION TWO: CHARACTER NAME OR ROLE Characters seem like the most popular choice for
titles, promising larger-than-life personalities. Some famous protagonist titles include
Emma, Coraline, and A Man Called Ove. It might contain their full name, like Oliver Twist
or Bridget Jones’s Diary. The character might have an unusual name that warrants attention,
like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Or important secondary characters could take the spotlight as
figures who have the greatest impact on the protagonist or who act as the catalyst for
the story: Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca. In young adult romances, the couple’s names
might become the title: Emmy & Oliver, Eleanor & Park, Nick & Norah’s Infinite
Playlist. I’m quite fond of the title Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because it rhymes in
a way that clashes with the idea of death, which matches the novel’s tragicomic tone.
You can also combine your character’s name with a phrase that captures the core conflict.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a contemporary drama with touches of humor;
it stars an eccentric architect named Bernadette who runs away,
and her daughter goes on a quest to find her. If your protagonist or another character has a
strong personality, then a character name could make for a unique title.
Another strategy when including a character’s name is to pair them with an interesting detail.
What stands out about their world? In a book where a boy grows a giant peach and lives inside of it
with talking insects, James and the Giant Peach seems like a fitting title. When a young girl
survives in the Alaskan wilderness with the help of a wolf pack, a name like Julie of the Wolves
sounds pretty awesome. Or maybe the story involves a character traveling to a special place, as in
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables. These types of titles are most often used
for children’s fiction or middle-grade novels. Adult titles that combine characters with
interesting details might focus more on crime, love, and death, as with The Strange Case of
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and John Dies at the End.
Some novels might have hidden character names, with titles that don’t sound like character
names at all until you’ve read the book. Strange the Dreamer is about a man named Lazlo Strange,
and “dreaming” plays an important role in the story. The protagonist in The Ten Thousand
Doors of January is named January for a specific reason, and she travels through magical doorways.
And Looking for Alaska isn’t about seeking out that great northern expanse
but about the narrator metaphorically trying to understand a girl named Alaska. If your
character’s name has a double meaning, you can consider how to make a play on it in the title.
A character’s role—or that of a group of people—might be used instead of their name.
These roles often suggest a story. I want to read about thieves, liars, and spies,
like The Book Thief, Pretty Little Liars, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
To use characters in your title, consider what’s intriguing about them or their role in the story.
OPTION THREE: IMPORTANT SETTING If your story revolves around a specific
setting, that’s a clear contender for a title. The entire story doesn’t need to take place there,
but if it shapes the character or plot in a powerful way, you can underscore
its importance by giving it top billing. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane is a psychological
thriller set on a desolate island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane. Lehane modeled
the setting after Long Island in Boston Harbor, which he visited during a blizzard as a child.
The word “shutter” evokes the verb “shudder,” meaning “to tremble,” especially in fear,
as well as the idea of window shutters—a place that’s closed off and hidden from the world. From
the title alone, we get the sense that something terrible will happen in this remote place.
Settings often take on a secondary, symbolic meaning, and the title can reflect that. In
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, the title refers to a section of marshy land between two ponds in India.
The novel traces the lives of two brothers as they grow up—starting close and then drifting apart.
The setting echoes the characters’ journey: the marsh floods during monsoon season,
merging the ponds together, but in summer, the water evaporates. So crucial is the setting to the
story that Lahiri opens with a description of the lowland before introducing the main characters.
A setting-related title can reference a familiar place that
the reader might already associate with particular emotions or ideas.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas immediately brings to mind drugs, sex, and gambling in Sin City,
which isn’t far off the mark from what the book is about. The title could also involve an entirely
made-up setting, like with Jurassic Park, The Night Circus, and The House in the Cerulean Sea.
The key setting might not be a place but a time period, like George Orwell’s 1984,
which was published in 1949 as a warning for what society could become in just a few decades.
When you feature a place that creates a strong atmosphere—whether that’s terror or romance
or any emotion in between—a setting-related title can set the mood for the entire story.
OPTION FOUR: ALLUSION Allusions are references to other famous texts.
All art we create is in conversation with all other art that has existed before.
Take The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It’s the story of an orphan boy raised by ghosts in
a graveyard. That premise suddenly sounds familiar when you think of an orphan growing up in a jungle
with talking animals. Gaiman decided to take Rudyard Kipling’s classic collection of short
stories The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard. Each of the chapters feels like a short story,
and some of them have direct parallels to Kipling’s work, with the title itself
being a nod to the novel’s inspiration. Allusions can make for good titles when
the novel draws heavily from a particular source. The Curious Incident of the Dog in
the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a title taken directly from a Sherlock Holmes short story,
“The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Haddon’s protagonist, Christopher,
loves reading Sherlock Holmes and uses “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in his own detective work
as he investigates the murder of a neighborhood dog. In the original Holmes story, the “curious
incident” is the fact that the dog stayed quiet throughout the night as the crime happened,
suggesting that the dog knew the culprit—and that plot point is echoed in Haddon’s story.
Allusions are also a way to guide the reader’s experience; the text that’s
being referenced acts as a lens through which the reader can interpret the novel at hand,
comparing and contrasting the themes. Sometimes allusions appear in an epigraph—a
quote placed before the beginning of the novel—as a way of explaining the title.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe references the poem “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
This beautifully captures the essence of the novel,
wherein the British colonization of Nigeria creates strife and imbalance.
Plays—especially those by Shakespeare—are another popular source of inspiration.
The dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a reference to The Tempest,
and the story includes numerous mentions of the Bard and his plays.
As in the original play, the “brave new world” phrasing is meant to be ironic,
given that Huxley’s novel depicts the dark side of a seemingly utopian world.
It’s not just old literary classics that reference Shakespeare; John Green’s young adult drama The
Fault in Our Stars is an altered quotation from Julius Caesar, in which Cassius says,
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
In other words, people are responsible for their own fates.
But John Green omits the “not” in his title to turn the phrase on its head, implying that bad
fates, like cancer, are often unavoidable, but as Augustus says in the book, “You don’t get to
choose if you get hurt in this world . . . but you do have some say in who hurts you.”
The Bible is another highly alluded to text. John Steinbeck was struggling to title one of
his novels when his wife suggested The Grapes of Wrath. Now, that’s a super weird name at first
glance, but it alludes to a Biblical passage by way of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,”
which draws on the traditional image of Christ standing in a winepress.
The phrase also appears toward the end of the novel after wealthy farmers destroy crops to
drive up food prices: “. . . and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls
of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
More contemporary novels might reference song titles or lyrics.
Song titles can’t be copyrighted, but if you’re borrowing specific lyrics,
you’ll likely have to get legal permission to do so. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas comes
from rapper Tupac’s “THUG LIFE” philosophy, which ties to the book’s themes of social oppression.
If you’re writing a novel inspired by other works of art, an allusion-based title can
be a good choice. What books, poems, texts, or songs influenced your novel? Are your novel’s
inspirations alluded to in the text? If so, look at famous quotes from the source material and
highlight any attention-grabbing phrases. OPTION FIVE: SYMBOL OR METAPHOR
This is often an object or abstract concept that represents a central idea in the novel.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is shaped around a famous Dutch painting entitled The Goldfinch. This
painting was the last thing the main character saw with his mother before her death, so for him
it represents the survival of his mother’s memory. Using a symbol as a book’s title draws attention
to its significance and encourages the reader to make those meaningful connections.
Bees are an important metaphor in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
The title is directly referenced within the story: “Most people don't have any idea about all
the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don't know anything about.”
Throughout the story, it’s clear that the characters, too, have complicated, secret lives.
Your book title can have a surface-level appeal that also yields a deeper meaning.
Even a simple title like Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine might just seem to be about the wine made
from dandelion petals mentioned in the novel. But since the story is about the joys of childhood,
dandelion wine also embodies all the magic of a summer memory, as Bradbury writes:
“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip
for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”
OPTION SIX: THEME Instead of aiming for any type of subtlety,
you can just whack your novel’s meaning on the nose by putting the theme in the title. Leo
Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is over a thousand pages long and more of a philosophical treatise
than a novel, follows the lives of different Russian aristocrats during the Napoleonic
Wars. It’s a sweeping historical text, and the title captures the feeling of that massive scale.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen has a nice alliterative ring, but it also describes the core
qualities in the novel’s main characters, Elinor and Marianne. In fact, Austen’s working title
for that novel was supposedly Elinor and Marianne. She followed a similar naming convention for Pride
and Prejudice, which was originally titled First Impressions. In a parallel fashion, the qualities
of “pride” and “prejudice” relate to the novel’s main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy,
who both show signs of pride and prejudice in their first meetings. Some literary critics think
Austen took the title from a popular novel she was known to have admired, Frances Burney’s Cecilia,
in which a character declares, “The whole of this unfortunate business . . . has been the
result of pride and prejudice.” On the more contemporary side,
Ian McEwan’s choice of Atonement for a title makes perfect sense at the novel’s end, since the story
is ultimately about atoning for a wrongdoing. When focusing on a theme in the title, make sure
your novel truly encompasses that theme on every level, from its plot to the cast of characters.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred tells the story of a Black woman living in 1976 Los Angeles who’s
sent back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she repeatedly clashes with her white ancestor.
“Kindred” can denote familial connections—one’s blood-related ancestors. But it also relates
to the idea of kindred spirits, people who are similar in nature or character.
The novel explores both levels of meaning through the complex feelings of love and hate between
the protagonist and her white ancestor. If you’re using a theme in your title,
different aspects of the novel should tie back to that title, making the reader reflect on those
abstract concepts and what questions the author is trying to wrestle with in telling this story.
OPTION SEVEN: PHRASE Phrases as titles are often lifted directly from
the text itself. They might include a personal pronoun like “I,” “my,” “they,” “us,” or “we”:
I Am the Messenger, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.
Flash fiction writer extraordinaire Kathy Fish advises using a fragment or sentence you edited
out of the story, as that can create resonance, given the line obviously “fits” the story in some
indirect way. She also suggests using a phrase your point-of-view character would say,
but doesn’t, in the story, which establishes the narrative voice, such as in her flash fiction
piece, “Another Story About Me and Some Guy.” Anthony Marra found the title for A Constellation
of Vital Phenomena in the pages of a medical dictionary. In an interview
with Powell’s City of Books, he shared, “It was definitely a fortuitous little twist of fate.
There are these six vital phenomena—organization, irritability, adaptation, movement, growth,
and reproduction, and there are six point-of-view characters in the novel. Life is structured as an
intersection and a constellation, really, of these six vital phenomena. The novel was structured as a
constellation of these six characters, and as soon as I saw it, I just had to use this as the title.”
The title appears in the novel itself when a character reads a medical dictionary
where “life” is defined as . . . a constellation of vital phenomena.
Harper Lee’s title of To Kill a Mockingbird pops up as a phrase when Atticus,
the father of the protagonist Scout, says, “Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Another character elaborates that mockingbirds make music for them to enjoy, singing their hearts
out, and that’s why it’s a sin to kill them. Scout remembers this lesson and notes later that hurting
their kindhearted, reclusive neighbor Boo Radley would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.”
In this way, phrases as titles capture the thematic core of the novel—and
they usually appear in the story at a moment when the character is learning
an important lesson that changes their worldview. Once you’ve created a list of potential titles, be
sure to consider these four marketing questions. One, will the title yield unique search results?
If your book title is too generic of a term, like “Happy Birthday,” it will have millions
of unrelated search results, and your title will be less likely to rise to the top.
Combining a common phrase with a character name or number is one way to make it stand out in search
engines, so I might go with something like, Happy Eleventy-First Birthday, Abigail Winters. Book
titles can’t be copyrighted, so your book can have the same title as another published work. However,
that can make it harder to find, and it might be confusing for readers who pick up the wrong book.
Two, is the title way too similar to another published novel?
Recently, a friend was telling me about a book she’d read, saying, “I think it was called The
7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle?” And I replied, “Do you mean The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo?”
But sure enough, those were two entirely different novels that happened to have very similar titles,
published only months apart, in an unlucky coincidence. In fact, the original UK title
for the former is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, since the publisher decided to change
the title in the US because of that similarity. In general, don’t get too wedded to your title
because your agent, editor, or the market might force you to change it. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
was originally entitled Catch-18, but because a more famous novelist at the time, Leon Uris,
had recently published Mila 18, Heller’s editor convinced him to change his beloved title.
But that choice ended up being serendipitous because the double digits better match the
novel’s themes of duplication and déjà vu. Three, does the title roll off the tongue? Does
it sound pleasing to the ear? Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight was originally titled . . . Forks.
Her agent advised her to change it, and they brainstormed a list of “words with atmosphere,”
which included “twilight.” That one stood out, although Meyer herself has said,
“It isn’t absolutely perfect; to be honest, I don’t think there is a perfect title for this book
(or if there is, I’ve never heard it).” And in other countries, it has vastly different titles,
from Temptation to The Boy Whom I Love Is a Vampire. To me, the sun and moon theme evokes
the idea of romance and fantasy, and the titles at least represent a narrative arc:
New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn. With Forks, it might’ve ended up as Spoons, Knives, and Sporks.
Four, does the title bring to mind the right genre? Thirteen Reasons Why sounds
like a contemporary drama. Baker’s Dozen, on the other hand, feels more like a romantic comedy
or a bakery-themed cozy mystery than a teen tragedy; the tone is all wrong.
You can borrow from current genre trends to attract your target audience,
although leaning into them too heavily can annoy readers with the flood of similar-sounding books.
Young Adult Fantasy for example, loves to use words like “queen,” “prince,” “ashes,” “blood,”
“fire,” “sea,” and “stars” in various combinations.
In adult fantasy, “shadow,” “dragon,” “war,” and “city” are the frontrunners.
The title, combined with the book cover, creates a neon sign that tells readers,
“Hey, this is a fantasy novel!” Contemporary thrillers, for some reason,
like using “girl” or “woman” in the title. Perhaps it’s as Edgar Allan Poe said: “The
death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
Writer Michael Tauberg theorizes that “The genius of the word ‘girl’ as opposed to ‘boy’
or ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is that it appeals to both male and female readers alike.”
Personally, I think the emphasis on “girl” and “woman” coincides with the rise of domestic
thrillers featuring complex female protagonists. In historical or contemporary fiction,
there’s often “The _____’s Daughter” or “Wife,” like The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
or The Time Traveler’s Wife. Across genres, the words “light” and “dark” remain popular.
Some readers would love to see these title trends die a fiery death
because they’re bland and hard to remember. But I think these trends hint at a larger
theme of what makes a title grab our attention. Michael Tauberg suggests using sex or violence:
“ . . . some of the most popular words depict the extremes of human experience.
On one end, ‘beautiful,’ ‘kiss,’ ‘heart,’ ‘heat,’ and ‘fire’ show up repeatedly. On the other we
find ‘death,’ ‘kill,’ ‘die,’ and ‘murder.’ By tapping into these extremes of the spectrum,
you can more easily entice a reader.” When choosing a genre-conscious title,
put on your reader glasses. If you knew nothing about the story or cover design,
in what genre would you assume that title would be shelved? For instance, with a title like Serafina
and the Black Cloak, I’m going to immediately assume the book would be categorized as fantasy
and most likely middle-grade fiction . . . which is exactly what it is.
As a quick side note, short stories follow similar naming trends as novels, using allusions
or phrases. But they’re just as often simple and to the point. Above all, they capture the
core conflict in the story, as with “The Lottery,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and “The Metamorphosis.”
As you consider your choices, know that authors across time have been pretty bad at naming their
own novels. And if you’re going the traditional publishing route, your editor or publisher will
likely suggest a title change based on their knowledge of what makes readers pick up a book.
Here’s a brainstorming exercise. Not all of these will apply to your novel,
but try your best to create a list of at least ten options. Write a title inspired by . . .
1. The inciting incident or primary plot goal 2. An important item
3. A world-building concept specific to your novel 4. Your protagonist’s name
5. An important secondary character’s name 6. Your protagonist’s name combined with
an important place, object, or idea 7. The role of an important character
8. The novel’s most important setting 9. A verb or noun paired with the setting
10. A phrase from your epigraph (if you have one) 11. A phrase from another work that
inspired your themes 12. A symbol or metaphor
used to represent a larger idea 13. A title with a double meaning
14. A noun or combination of nouns that pinpoint the theme
15. A phrase from the novel that captures the theme
16. A title that follows genre trends 17. An alliterative title
18. A title that includes an extreme: life/death, light/dark, love/hate
19. A one-word title 20. A five-word title
21. Combinations of adjectives and nouns that are important to your story
22. A title inspired by an online book title generator
Choose your top five and survey your beta readers, family members, and maybe even random librarians
and booksellers about which one sounds most intriguing. Have them rank the titles in order
of appeal. Which one would make them pick up the book if they knew nothing about it? What appeals
to them about their top pick? What would they assume about the genre based on those titles?
If they dislike any of the options, what about it rubs them the wrong way?
A title is your reader’s first impression, so devote time to crafting one that tells a story.
What book titles stand out to you? Capture my attention in the comments.
Whatever you do, keep writing.