How to hook a reader in seconds: finding a good title

What’s the first part of your story that a reader sees? Whether it’s on the spine of a book, at the top of a magazine page, or in a table of contents, it’s the title, so it had better be a good one.

Pretty much all you can see is the title

Sometimes the title is the only thing someone will see, for example a bare list of titles and authors on a webpage – you have to entice the reader to click on your link purely on the strength of that title, before they even get a chance to experience your story. It can be amusing, quirky, groan-inducing, exciting and full of promise, but it definitely has to be eye-catching. If it’s in a mixed-genre setting it may also have to suggest its genre within its limited character set.

The Menagerie. Goth Opera. The Mind Robber. Shadowmind. Mission Impractical. Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Those are all titles of Doctor Who novels, but they don’t all have the same feel. When I acquired all those Doctor Who novels recently it struck me how the titles variously suggested horror, sci-fi, highbrow fantasy, tongue in cheek comic fantasy, old-fashioned mystery, adventure story for children, thriller, or some combination of these (and other) moods. Titles have such potential, but if you’re anything like me you may often throw one at your story at the last minute, an afterthought considered vaguely acceptable and sent out into the world. If so, you and I both need to think harder.

Blame my unfortunate affection for dodgy puns on my dad (and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again) if you like, but whatever the origin, I know I do use them in titles. Leaf Encounter for instance – their eyes met in a greengrocer’s shop and it seemed like an obvious choice; I hoped that it might also suggest to others some of the things it suggested to me, that maybe it wasn’t entirely serious and that it might involve a love that wasn’t to be.

For that reason I also use common phrases like Rain Stopped Play or Windows to the Soul. Rain Stopped Play isn’t about cricket (though it is about rain) but Windows to the Soul does have eyes as a central point. I use song-titles, some of which fit the mood (Resurrection Joe and Boys Don’t Cry are both about goths), some don’t (Wasted Years has very little to do with Iron Maiden but I still like it as a working title). Sometimes the title comes first – I have a few in my bits file that have only sparked glimmers of ideas or very rough outlines so far, and most of them will probably stay that way.

I don’t always throw in a title at the last minute, and I don’t always stick with the first title I think of – Boys Don’t Cry had two previous titles I think, but was usually known as the gothlad comic. A good indication that your title isn’t so hot is when you and your closest friends can’t remember it; I had another story recently which a friend was trying to refer to and had to fall back on a plot summary, and when he apologised for forgetting the title I had to confess I couldn’t remember it either (I’ve renamed it since, and I now know it’s called Cracks in the Foundations).

I’d already started drafting this post (see the work that went into this) when I spotted a link to a wordpress advice page about choosing eye-catching post titles, and certainly the basic principles of that also apply to story (or any other) titles. I’m not claiming I come up with good titles, in fact mainly I’m saying the opposite, but I’m trying to learn, both for stories and blog posts, and if I’ve made you think a bit harder about the next title you have to come up with, that’s probably a good thing. Just don’t blame me when you’re stressing about it.

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