I know, right? It’s like my entire life peaked at the moment I first read that title—peaked, I say.
Here are the rules of thumb I go by when titling anything
fanfiction doesn’t count, that’s another plane of existence.
A good title is:
- small and simple
- will tell the reader what genre it is
- will tell the reader what the story is about
Now, to expand upon this.
Please Note: In my view, a good title is a successful title. Whether or not they appeal to everyone’s sensibilities, they have appealed to enough people to be make a return on their investment.
Small and Simple
Generally, you want 3-4 words maximum for your story. That's the sweet spot. 5 words is possible, but not advised.
Think about movies, any movies, it doesn’t have to be your favorite, it just has to be the ones that pop in mind first. They’re the ones with memorable titles, and will most likely be the ones with the least amount of words.
- The Godfather
- Saving Private Ryan
- Gone with the Wind
Even franchises tend to have four words or less in their umbrella titles:
- Harry Potter
- Star Wars
- Indiana Jones
- Lord of the Rings
I would just like to point out, even though the full title for the franchise is technically The Lord of the Rings, the ‘the’ is functionally nonexistent. Why? Well, consider its shortened form, LotR. Adding the ‘T’ from the ‘the’ would just be…useless. In casual discussion, people will shorten it down to Lord of the Rings, a more manageable size.
A similar thing occurs with the Harry Potter franchise. The ‘and’ portion of the full title function identically to a colon. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban may as well be written Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban for all the ‘and’ does to the title.
Further, in franchises, even the subtitle follows the same rules:
- The Prisoner of Azkaban
- The Deathly Hallows
- A New Hope
- Revenge of the Sith
- The Force Awakens
- Temple of Doom
- The Last Crusade
- The Two Towers
- The Return of the King
Again, the ‘the’ in the beginning of most title is functionally useless. Consider, when you’re talking about your favorite Harry Potter movie, you don’t say “The Prisoner of Azkaban” or “The Deathly Hallows” you say, “Prisoner of Azkaban” or “Deathly Hallows.”
The only exception to this is The Force Awakens, and that’s because the determiner is actually part of a proper noun. It’s the Force, not Force, therefore, this is one of those cases where the determiner, ‘the’ is essential, but for the most part…consider the determiner dead.
Like I said, five words is possible, but in many cases, they begin with a determiner (‘the’, ‘a’, or ‘an’) which are functionally useless, so it’s actually less than you might think.
Humans don’t like remembering too many words, so consider that when titling things.
A good title will tell you what kind of genre, and therefore what world and rules, to expect. Lean on stereotypes and preconceived notions---they may be detrimental to social progress, but they're actually super helpful when coming up with titles. A reader who expects one thing and receives another is more likely to be an unhappy reader, and unhappy readers mean unsuccessful stories.
We may not appreciate stereotypes, but they’re actually quite useful.
@Samuel_H_Young’s The Magician’s Burden is a title that tells you exactly what to expect to expect with a single word: magician.
Going in, a reader will know that there will be magic, possible even different races. They will come into the story, already willing to suspend disbelief and the laws of physics in order to enjoy this story.
A reader is not a blank slate, they come with preconceived notions and expectations. They choose your story for a variety of reasons, but most don’t go in wanting to hate the story they’ll read. They want to be entertained.
But humans are…fickle, in some respects. If our expectations and the reality of the situation are contradictory, that will actually create cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort), which makes it harder for the reader to enjoy.
Don’t title your work something steampunk-y if it’s only going to contain one single steampunk-like item. There is an expectation from the reader of the type of world the story will be set in depending on the title.
A reader who’s expecting a fantasy novel and gets an action oriented spy thriller will have a tougher time getting through the first few pages, which are crucial. You can make or break success within the first page. If your readers are confused within the first page, then something is incredibly wrong.
It is your job as a writer to deliver what you claim. If you don’t, the reader will be disappointed and not want to read from you again. It’s a harsh truth, but one that must be understood.
Now, time for some genre conventions:
Fantasy and Sci-Fi, more than any other genre, have made up words in their titles. This is not to say that made up words can’t appear in other genres, but keep that fact in mind when you title something with a made up word.
Also note, if you are going to use a made up word, make it easy to read. If your readers trip over the title because of a word, change it. Most readers don’t enjoy the title to be a challenge in and of itself.
This is not to say that Sci-Fi fantasy novels must have made-up words, only that you be careful about using them in your title, because the sterotype will work against you if you’re not writing a Fantasy or Sci-Fi story.
Many spy, thriller, and speculative fiction novels follow a specific formula in their titles:
- Noun or person’s/place’s name, often something esoteric and classical that sounds like it could be code for something (often Gratuitous Greek).
- Noun with political or symbolic undertones. Also, often some type of document.
Credit to TV Tropes who wrote the above section better than I could after a half hour of trying).
Dramas, by comparison, have relatively few genre conventions, and as a result, are usually only distinguished by being blatantly labelled as dramas.
Examples (under a cut because there's a lot)
- Sci-Fi/Fantasy titles with made up words:
- The Prisoner of Azkaban
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- Revenge of the Sith
- Thriller titles that follow the aforementioned formula:
- The Da Vinci Code
- The Bourne Identity
- The Manchurian Candidate
- Titles that follow no naming convention, but will tell you exactly what kind of genre to expect:
- Jurassic Park
- Starship Troopers
- Gone Girl
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- Clear and Present Danger
There’s so many more examples, but this is already getting overly long, and there’s still a third part to get to.
A Hint of Story
Finally, a good title will give an idea of what the story will be about. It's that simple. Barring a cover, the title is first thing that a reader will take from your story. It must concisely inform them of what to expect, perhaps even what themes will be explored, all while still being interesting enough to draw you in.
Fallen Hero: Rebirth is one of the best examples of a title that tells you a story. With three words, you know the backstory and the trajectory of the first book.
Firstly, we know it’s about a hero, a former hero. Right off the bat, we know it’s about superheroes.
Next, we know that this hero undergoes some sort of metamorphosis within the story because of the Rebirth.
Lastly (and this gets rather long because I think I’m reading into it more than @malinryden intended), fallen refers to at least three different aspects within the story, 1. the MC’s literal fall out of a window which leads to 2. the MC’s supposed death in the line of duty, and 3. their moral/sinful fall into villainy. With a single word, Malin has described three plot points.
Altogether, these three word title tells you everything you need to know about the game. You don’t go in blind, you already know at least 3/5ths of the game’s plot. The rest is then up to Malin’s writing to keep you entertained
and boy, does it.
Other examples include:
- Gone with the Wind
- You go in know it will be about great change, in a melancholy sort of fashion.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- Things Fall Apart
- It’s in the title. It’s about change and destruction, a specific kind that cannot be helped despite all that you do.
Honestly? That’s it.
The rest is really up to you, just make sure to: make it short, make it obvious what genre you’re writing in, and make it informative.