By Ryan Byrnes
Very often, a literary agent reads a great query that meet all the requirements – marketability, high quality of writing, an author with a following – and then the agent arrives at the manuscript’s title and goes, huh? This “huh?” can be boiled down to a few main functions in a title that we sometimes forget to consider.
- The style of the title should match the tone/genre conventions of the book.
- The sounds of the title should be phonetically relevant to the tone.
- The words of the title should convey information about the book.
- The title should create concrete imagery.
- The title should not contain useless prepositions.
- The title should beg a question by implying information.
Take The Great Gatsby, for example. This title plays with the G and A sound to be phonetically grandiose; it conveys that a person named Gatsby is the focus of the book; it is short and easy to say. Here is what the novel was almost named: Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, On the Road to West Egg, Trimalchio In West Egg, all titles that clearly break the mold for a number of reasons.
Titles are important – they shape a potential reader’s opinion of a book and can be the difference between spoiling on the shelf at Barnes and Noble or a treasured residency in a reader’s personal collection. Coming up with the perfect title can take weeks – it’s no easy task, considering you have to reduce your 300+ page novel to under ten words. Not worries – if anyone can do it, it’s you, the author. Here are 6 strategies for how to name your novel. Some of the titles mentioned fit several categories, as there are never, ironically, any absolutes when it comes to writing.
- Long and Pretentious – This type is intended for mostly historical or literary novels because they have a tone of drama and sophistication. They often can make up their own grammatical clause. They can also be used for satirical, quirky, or comedic books seeking to poke fun at the drama. Some examples of these titles include Everyone Brave is Forgiven, All the Light We Cannot See, To Capture What We Cannot Keep, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
- Name the Topic – One of the simpler methods, these titles basically name the main character – if that is the focus of the book – or the main character’s goal. Titles include The Namesake, The God of Small Things, The Sympathizer, The Giver, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
- Allusion – Be warned, these types of titles are not as popular as they once were. They take lines from publicly familiar literature like myths, fables, songs, sayings, prayers, Shakespeare, the Bible, and others, to give the book a sense of legitimacy and familiarity. The most well-known uses of this mold come from the 1930’s and 1940’s. We have The Sound and the Fury, Go Down Moses, As I Lay Dying, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of Our Discontent, Of Mice and Men, etc. It helps to take one of these familiar phrases and twist them slightly, like the film In Sickness and in Wealth.
- Imply Information – These are some of the most powerful titles because they say things without saying them. The reader should be able to glance at this title on the shelf and within a few seconds understand what is being implied. Arriving at this conclusion is gratifying and will make the reader feel like this is a smart book they’d like to have on their shelf. Titles include How to Sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed and When Breath Becomes Air.
- Concrete Imagery – This type of title uses a phrase or clause to create a highly emotional image for the reader, relying on poetic devices like metaphor, alliteration, word choice, syllable arrangement, and more. This creates a very powerful emotion in the reader, which will compel them to pick up the book. Perfect example: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Fates and Furies, Gone Girl, Sharp Objects.
- One Word – Good for suspense, these titles pick a single word to convey the tone. The technical nature of the word tells us that the book will have be fast-paced, thrilling, and have an intellectual appeal, as these novels operate by having readers think what’s next? Some young adult novels have begun using this strategy lately: Twilight, Divergent, Chosen. Although these examples are movies, the same principle applies: Contagion, Inception, Atonement, Interstellar, Oblivion.
So you think your novel title needs work? Try brainstorming a few ideas based off this list. If you think your novel is appropriately named, then best of luck, and submit to Holloway Literary Agency.
Ryan Byrnes is an intern with Holloway Literary.