Titles are the bait that authors use to hook readers.

A highly effective title is not just catchy. It is true to the book. It provides a sample of the writing style and the story to come.

That’s a big job for one little sentence fragment!

While considering different titles for my novel, Eleanor and the Impossible, I decided to study some classic book titles and see if I could figure out what made them work. I came up with several key elements that make for great titles. Of course, not all of the elements will be used in each title–nor will each title use only one element. Still, it was an interesting breakdown, so I’m excited to share it with you!

Here are the common elements I found in great book titles:

Universal ideas

Examples: The Things We Wish Were True, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Some book titles contain universal ideas, promising a read that is at once profound and relatable.

Characterization

Examples: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Life Without Shoes, The Book Thief

Some book titles paint a picture of the protagonist that leaves the reader wanting more. The trick is to choose a captivating detail: a wallflower, a dragon tattoo, a person who is “completely fine.”

Curiosity

Examples: The Secret Life of Bees, All the Light We Cannot See, The Man the World Forgot

Some book titles tease readers with knowledge they don’t yet or cannot have. With trigger words like “secret, hidden, forgotten, dark, lost, true” they peak curiosity without revealing much about the story.

Metaphors/similes

Examples: A Wrinkle in Time, Like Water for Chocolate

Some books titles employee metaphors or similes that engage the reader’s mind. By the time you’ve figured out what “a wrinkle in time” would cause or what substituting “water for chocolate” would imply, you’re fascinated by the book!

Foreshadowing

Examples: Love in the Time of Cholera, The Age of Innocence, Gone with the Wind, Atlas Shrugged

Some book titles can function as synopses in miniature. They set the stage of the story, so the reader has a good idea what to expect. Love in the Time of Cholera chronicles a Caribbean romance set between the years 1880-1930. Gone with the Wind  and Atlas Shrugged are a bit more sparse, but we can expect to be following the collapse of a civilization.

Dramatic conflict

Examples: The Sound and the Fury, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The Grapes of Wrath, The Hate U Give

Some book titles command your attention by going whole hog on the tension. With words like “fury, wrath, hate, fire, cry, scream” they draw you straight into the inflamed heart of their stories.

Prettiness

Examples: A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Fault in Our Stars, Tender is the Night, Where the Wild Things Are, Water for Elephants

Some book titles are just plain pretty. Maybe they’ve used a poetic divergence from grammatical norms (Tender is the Night instead of The Night is Tender), or maybe they’ve invoked romantic imagery (water, stars, light, birds, songs, the color blue…) Either way, these book titles are irresistible in the same way that pretty girls in a cafe are irresistible. You can’t help looking at them and wanting to know more about them.

The Unexpected

Examples: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, John Dies at the End

Some book titles hook you by proving that they have the ability to surprise you.

Double meanings

Examples: Let Me Explain You, The Importance of Being Earnest

In my mind, these might be the richest of book titles–but their cleverness is not apparent until after you begin reading the book. Let Me Explain You, for example, chronicles a Greek immigrant’s attempt to reconcile with his family before he dies. “Let me explain you” is both a play on his accent (he means “let me explain something to you”) and on the author’s attempt to explain the life of an immigrant.


Do you have a favorite book title? What do you like about it?

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Let’s Get Meta: a look at analogies and why we use them  OR

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One thought on “What do great book titles have in common?

  1. I always liked the title “Things We Lost in the Fire” for being emotionally provactive…. And now after seeing wildfires out here in the Western U.S., I have a new appreciation for the many layers of meaning…

    Like

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