I recently had a wake-up call when the Wilderness House Literary Review accepted a story I wrote. Editor Timothy Gager said, “When I saw the title of Susan Whiting Kemp’s piece, ‘The Opposite of Coronavirus’ on the submission list, I immediately assumed that the story was going to be heavy on Coronavirus, and light on opposite. Boy was I pleasantly surprised…’”

This told me that the title could have kept my story from being published, and got me thinking that I hadn’t put much effort into naming it. In fact, I’d been particularly lazy by naming it with the writing prompt that spurred it. If I’d been doing it right, I would have thought more about what makes the story different and how to best portray that. I might have tried one of these suggestions.

1. Use Contradictory Words

Malcom Gladwell (New Yorker writer and bestselling author) insists you should spend as much time on your title as your content. While he’s talking about his nonfiction writing—you probably wouldn’t spend a year or more reworking your novel title—the takeaway is that good titles take time and attention. In a Masterclass video he suggests using words that contradict each other. He gives the example of Silent Spring by Rachael Carson, the contradiction being that Spring isn’t a quiet time of year.

I’ve just finished writing a novel in which the water begins disappearing from the Earth. The working title is Aguageddon. (Gone Water, mirroring Gone Girl, was an early but awkward contender.) If I were to use a title with contradictory words I might try Dry Water, Thirsty Water, or Arid Water. Dehydrated Water would be fun, but too humorous for this particular work.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but I tracked down these examples of titles with contradictory words:

  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish
  • White Tears, by Hari Kunzru
  • An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

2. Use Words with Emotional Connotations

Gladwell also suggests using words with emotional connotations. Here are some that I found.

  • Severance, by Ling Ma
  • Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Llyod-Jones
  • Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire
  • Desolation Road, by Ian McDonald
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris
  • Crooked, by Austin Grossman
  • Threats, by Emelia Gray
  • Euphoria, by Lily King

3. Make it Memorable

What makes a title memorable? I suspect it’s different for everybody. For me it helps to have specific nouns that I can visualize. Wacky titles also tend to stick in my mind, as do clever ones. We Grew Tales, a book I co-authored with Evelyn Arvey and Nancy Bonnington, takes its name from one of its short stories: “We Grew Tails.” We replaced “tails” (appendages) with “tales” (stories). We hope it’s wacky or clever enough to be memorable.

Examples of titles that I find memorable:

  • Cowboys are my Weakness: Stories by Pam Houston
  • How to be a Dictator, by Frank Dicotter (nonfiction)
  • Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
  • Women Warriors, by Pamela Toler (nonfiction)

4. Evoke Mystery

Many titles evoke mystery, if only because it’s hard to describe an entire novel in just a few words and so you’re always left wondering what it could possibly be about. But I find these titles compelling in a way that made me want to read them.

  • Blue Ticket, by Sophie Mackintosh
  • By Gaslight, by Stephen Price
  • The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
  • Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

5. Use a Number

There’s a reason so many internet posts and articles use numbers. We are psychologically drawn to them. Read about the psychology of numbers in headlines here.

  • New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Fifth Season, by NK Jemison
  • 10:04, by Ben Lerner
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
  • Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
  • Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson

6. Take a Poll

For the title of this blog post, I attempted to find contradicting words yet still make the subject clear. I floundered. What’s an antonym for the word “title?” Anti-title? Something heavy, since letters are nearly weightless? I couldn’t come up with anything that made sense using that method. Instead I added emotion-evoking words (strong, formidable).

Then I took a poll. “Nail your Title,” got the most votes. You could argue that it evokes emotion (triumph). At the last minute I added a number and ended up with “6 Ways to Nail Your Title.” Here are the poll results, from most to least popular.

  • Nail your Title
  • The Two-Second [Book] Title
  • The Importance of Titles
  • Contradiction in Titles
  • Formidable Story Titles
  • Strong Titles
  • Word Choice for Titles
  • How to Write an Exceptional Title

For fun, I also asked for suggestions. Here they are, in order of appearance:

  • Title Search
  • Titles that Sound Entitled
  • Choosing the Perfect Title
  • The Formidable Title or A Formidable Title
  • Title, Maxed
  • Titling Titles
  • You Had Me at Title
  • The Eponymous Title Page
  • En-titled
  • Title IX
  • Titles of Nobility

I’ve read half the books in this post and got the rest from lists of best novels, so I can confidently recommend them to you.

I really hope that you found this post valuable. If so, please email it to your friends or share it on social media. I’d be so grateful. Thank you!

We Grew Tales, a collaboration of speculative fiction, humorous, and literary tales is available for purchase.

4 thoughts

  1. Very informative. Coming up with titles has always been quite challenging for me… and I’m currently working on a title for a new project. This post helped bring my thoughts into focus. Keep up the excellent content. I’m looking forward to the next one!

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