Monday, July 7, 2014

The Secret to a Great Book Title

I recently read If I Stay by Gayle Foreman. The main reason I bought it? I'm obsessed with the premise. The second biggest reason? The title.

As of yet, I don't think I've ever heard of a better title for a book (of course this is just my subjectivity speaking). Why do I think it's a good title? How about we ask the bigger question:

What makes a good title?

Basically, one thing: It makes you want to find out more about the book.

It makes you pick up the book from a bookshelf lined up with only the spines of the book facing you. It makes you ask, "What's it about?" genuinely when someone mentions the book's title in passing. It makes you stop in your tracks when you come across it at a bookstore and you think, "Hey, I heard about this book before."

It makes you want to read the blurb (and hopefully, the blurb and the first few pages will make you buy the book).

If I Stay as a title accomplished all that and more for me. I still can't stop thinking about the title and what it means. (Basically, the book is about a girl who gets in a car crash and is comatose. She has a big choice to make... and as the book's blurb doesn't tell you what the choice is, I won't either, but the title should make it pretty obvious. Don't worry, knowing what the choice is doesn't ruin the book at all; I bought the book because I wanted to know how she'd make the choice.) But anyway, back to the title!

If I stay. The main character is thinking, what will happen if she stays?

But notice there's no question mark at the end of "If I stay."

It's not framed as a question, it's framed as an option. "If," the most powerful word, maybe ever, in my opinion. "If I Stay."

And the thing is, it's not even "If I Go" which is the other option and, technically, just as viable of a title. But you see, I was thinking about this and wondering exactly why I like 'stay' better than 'go' and I think it's because 'go' is much more...stereotypical, for lack of a better word. One can always find reasons to go. But by having "If I Stay" be the title, it shows that the main character is thinking much more about that option - not because she wants to live or is just so happy, but because she's trying to find reasons to stay. To me, trying to find reasons to stay is much more heart-breaking and thought-provoking than finding reasons to go.

That's why I bought the book. A good title is everything, folks. A mediocre title is fine - just make it memorable. A bad title can kill your novel. But an incredible title - it can make it.

So what's the secret to a great book title?

Here's what everyone knows:

1. Unique (don't let it show up if you Google it or Amazon it)

2. Memorable (short and sweet, usually, unless it's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or something like that; case in point: I just tried looking up the title to another book that I thought was memorable. I kept Googling different versions of the book's title (it's something like "A Great Work of Epic Proportion" or something like that, I have no clue) and no books show up. Only links like 'great works of art' show up. I can't ever find the book now unless I try really hard (and I won't). There goes one potential buyer)

3. Related to the Book in Some Way The title can't be gimmicky; it has to be related to the book's overall purpose/main idea/plot/character/anything big about the book. It can't be called, "How to Cure Hangovers in Ten Minutes" and then be a MG Thriller.

But if everyone knows these three things, they're not a secret. Those three bullets are crucial, I would say, but the way to have a great book on.

4. Thought-provoking. Just the right amount of confusion to get the reader to pick up the book, just the right amount of detail to give the reader some idea of what the book is about, and hinting at big questions or ideas. Notice how If I Stay is not forced. Thought-provoking also could be, for that novel, 'Live vs. Die' and that could be the title. But that freaking sucks. It's nasty. It's preachy and too themey. Which is why the next bullet-point (in conjunction with #4) is:

5. Natural to Your Book's VoiceIf I Stay was written in the first-person, and so is the title. You get a hint of the character's voice in the title and thus, the reader immediately connects with the main character (which is why great titles might be slightly more achievable for writers in the first-person). The title gels with the book; it's seamless. Make sure yours is too.

Now it's time for me to take my own advice with my mediocre, quick-and-easy title of 'Saving Penelope'. Sigh.

How about you? How do you come up with your titles? What title is your favorite? Do you have a favorite?

By the way, it's 7/7/14!!!! Two sevens and then a 14 (7 + 7!). LUCKY NUMBER WOO!!!! It'll be a good day :)


  1. Gimmicky titles are annoying. They promise one thing but deliver something else.
    I was fortunate that my titles are all unique. Do a search and my books are all you'll find.

  2. Very timely post. Thanks!

    I don't suppose you were thinking about this book:
    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

    For some reason when I read your guess for that book title, this is the one that popped into my mind.

    1. YESSS. THAT'S THE ONE!!! I know it's super famous, but I just couldn't think of the title! Thank you!

  3. Great blog. Enjoyed reading it.
    I hope to read this book too, soon. :)
    I wonder how long it took for the author to think up this title.
    That's the REAL challenge! :)

  4. (This also makes me think of the Backstreet Boys song "If YOU Stay" lol)

    Titles are my worst enemy, to be honest. Or maybe I'm theirs. I've always had trouble with them.

  5. In most cases they just come to me, and I'm pretty happy with them. (Though an agent or publisher may disagree.)

    My current WIP is another story...