Desperately Seeking The Perfect Title

After a lot of frustration trying to find good titles for my projects, I started thinking about titles of successful books and movies.  I realized they usually fall into categories.  Knowing these categories help me create a strategy for finding the perfect title.

1. Main Character – this is the obvious place to start.  I’m not a fan of using the name of the main character as the title of a book.  Sure, there are instances where that worked out fine (Forrest Gump, Dexter) and others where that helped create a disaster (the movie John Carter).  Notice the ones that do work are often unusual names.  So if your character’s name is Ponconby Fassmesser, you might be O.K. using that as your title.

A better strategy would be to zero in on something interesting or unusual about your character.  It should be descriptive and usually should be short.  It could be their occupation, especially if it’s an unusual one (Gossip Girl, The Maze Runner, The Book Thief, Ship Breaker), something that describes an important relationship (The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Chaperon), their state of mind (Psycho, Divergent), an unusual physical feature (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

If you have a multiple protagonist story, find a way to describe them as a group, ie. The Help, The Joy Luck Club, The Riders Of The Purple Sage, Goodfellas.

2. The Forces of Antagonism – your antagonist is another good source for a title.  Forces of antagonism aren’t always people or one person.  Examples would be The Walking Dead, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator, Alien, Jaws, Twister.  (Just noticed as I’m writing this that lots of horror and sci-fi writers go this route.)

3. Setting – sometimes it’s easy to overlook setting as an inspiration, but setting can be like another character in a story.  Like proper names, it can be tricky to use setting as a title, because using the name of a place can be too general.  Try an unusual name (‘Salem’s Lot, Lonesome Dove, The Chronicles of Narnia), an unusual setting (Jurassic Park, Red Mars, The Night Circus, Wolf Hall), or something descriptive (Animal House, Field of Dreams, Under The Dome, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Where The Wild Things Are).

4. Central Event – the most important event in your story can be mined for a title – The Hunger Games, The Scorpio Races, 11/22/63, The Sting, The Stand, The Passage, World War Z.

5. Situation – sometimes simply describing the situation the characters are in can yield a title –  Matched, Lost, Gone Girl, Sleepless In Seattle, Moonstruck, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

6. Object Being Sought – what’s everyone seeking in the story, or what’s important to all the characters?  The Maltese Falcon, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Lord Of The Rings, Rosemary’s Baby.

7. Theme or Genre – again, the danger is being too general, but it can work – Freedom, Pulp Fiction, Love Story.

8. Mix Main Character Name With One of The Other Categories –  If you’re writing a series, consider using the old stand-by (Character’s Name) & (Whatever).  It’s a tiny bit hokey, but it’s also a great way to get readers to immediately recognize a book belongs to a series.  The Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series are two recent examples.

Even if you’re not writing a series, it can be a better option than using the character’s name alone – Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (character name + situation), Alice In Wonderland (character name + setting), Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (character name + event).

Hmm, Ponconby Fassmesser.  I think I’ve got the title for my next great opus.

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