Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Titles that Tell the Truth


One week ago, I held out hope to the last page of the book I read. But I was duped.

I held out a certain hope with each page because of the promise declared in the title. And as I turned the last page, I felt the title lied to me. 

The title lured me in for an exciting story, promised a certain adventure which would lead to suspense, a page turner, and did not deliver. I chose it over other books in the seconds I had available.  

As a reader, I feel the title is a promise-a contract. As a writer I am obligated to convey the truth in the title, especially if I want readers to buy more of my books.

FB friends helped form this list of classic book titles they felt kept the promise. This in no way indicated the quality of the book or whether the person liked the book.

The Secret Garden
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
Dante's Inferno
 . . . and many others

..and their list of classic book titles they felt did not keep the promise. Once again, this list does not indicate quality of the book or whether the person liked it. 

God's Little Acre
Gone with the Wind
Catcher in the Rye
Grapes of Wrath
To Kill a Mocking Bird
The Glass Menagerie

A title needs to:

*Capture a reader's attention  (Brave Heart, The Comedy of Errors)

*Have few words (Persuasion, Kidnapped)

*Be Unique (Jaws, The Wizard of Oz)

*Allude to the theme (Dante's Inferno), 
                  the main character (Sherlock Holmes), 
                  the setting (The Secret Garden and 1984), 
             or the genre (Murder on the Orient Express)

*Tell the truth about the story (Beauty and the Beast, The Importance of Being Earnest

*Spark a question (Pilgrim's Progress- what did the pilgrim progress from and too? The Great Gatsby - why is he/she so great? The Secret Garden - what is the secret?)

Tips to Writing a Better Title:

1. Make a list of words or phrases that match your theme, setting, character, story question. Use every word you can think of and their synonyms. Consider writing each word on it's own post it. 

2. From this list form possible titles by shifting and grouping words (this same method can be seen in the movie Julie and Julia when the title for Julia Child's cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was formed) Also, Beth Vogt talks about using this method.

3. Read the list out loud. Which top three titles sound right?

4. Ask crit partners their opinion and suggestions

5. Modify your top three choices.

6. Ask others outside your crit partners.

7. Let the list soak in your thoughts.

8. Now pick the winner and don't be afraid to change your mind - or pick more than one. Editors don't mind. 

The title of this post, and my previous post as well, changed at least five time before I pressed the publish key. Even the title of my blog post must convey the meaning while intriguing.

The title works in harmony with the cover. 
They are the door to your book. 

Reader: What formula have you used to construct a winning title? 
               What title really rings solid for you?
               What title falls short of the mark?

photos courtesy of

This blog post is by Mary Vee

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes contemporary Christian fiction with a focus on the homeless population and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Finalist Phoenix Rattler Writing Contest 2012 
Semi finalist Clash of the Titans, Olympia Writing Contest 2012 (finalists announced 2013)
Finalist Christmas Tree Writing Contest 2012

Website Step into Someone Else's World
Ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids


Brittany Westerberg said...

Titles are the things that catch your reader. They're just like reading headlines in a newspaper or magazine; you only read the ones that capture your attention. Thank you for the tips. I think this is soething a lot of people struggle with when they write a book.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thank Brittany.

I have been wadding up and throwing away scraps of paper trying to come up with a good title for my WIP. Have not succeeded. After reading this last book from my reading pile, I see all the more that an exciting title is not the key. An exciting title that portrays what is really in the book is key.

Jeanne T said...

Great post, Mary. I will have to try your suggestions for coming up with titles. Sometimes they just come to me, and sometimes I'm groping for one that will aptly hint at what I'm writing about. :) Having a specific method for developing titles will be helpful.


Mary Vee Writer said...

You're welcome and thanks for stopping by. Like the other Alley Cats, I learn tips from movies as well as books :)

Ruth Douthitt said...

Great post! Titles are important. I teach writing and ask my students to really ponder the title of their work because that's what draws the reader to the book.

I thought of the title to my current WIP when giving a spelling test to 6th graders. I noticed a "story" in the list of words. The Children Under the Ice was the title I came up with.

Unknown said...

Ooh, I totally think Gone With the Wind lives up to the title. Every time Scarlett thinks she's secured things for herself, another thing is lost just like that. One husband after another, her child, her home, CLARK GABLE!!! (Actually, I've never read the book, though...only seen the movie. So maybe the book doesn't live up to the title.)

But anyway, I'm horrible at titles! These are great tips, Mary!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

I feel like this happens a lot! So often I'm hanging on to the end to see it all come together and then I'm just baffled.

I've never had a problem titling my stories. I guess when I'm done with the submission process I'll know if I'm any good at it :) Often times my premise is wrapped around a title conceived before anything is written. But even if it's not, I always feel like it is that whisper from God about the heart of the message of his grace that names it in the end.

Great post, Mary!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Ruth, I like your title. Sounds like an exciting story. And what a great idea to incorporate your WIP in your classroom. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

The movie is good, the book is awesome. Gone with the Wind is one of my favorite books! Read the long version in high school and have been hooked ever since.
The reason the FB person chose Gone with the Wind as a title not reaching the mark is because they felt it had nothing to do with the Civil War.
Interesting how we can have different perspectives, eh?

Mary Vee Writer said...

"That whisper from God about the heart of the message" Love that line. It sums up what our titles should be. Thanks so much for the helpful comment. :)

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Mary! I probably slap a title on too quickly, but I like my titles to have a double really hint to the overall theme of the book. Actually, I think Gone With The Wind, Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill A Mockingbird do this wonderfully! When a title is drenched in symbolism, then you know you're in for a rich, deep story.
I love your tips on creating a good title!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks, Angie.

Titles like the three you mention fall into the question category I think. Intriguing readers to explore the book and dive into hidden meanings.

As long as the meaning is explored truthfully in the book, these hidden meaning titles are a delight.

Pepper said...

My formula?

1. Text Mary with title ideas

2. Read Mary give honest feedback...some with snark, others without.

3. Listen to Mary's sound advice

4. Find the right title.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Those texts were fun. Thanks for including me, Pepper. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love your tips, Mary! I'm impressed at how you pulled together those different thoughts from that conversation on Facebook. Choosing a title is so difficult, but I love the creativity of it.

Joanne Sher said...

What a fabulous post. I will DEFINITELY be using this one a lot.