If you haven’t already, spend some time this week thinking about titles. For an informational nonfiction book, you need both a title for your book and titles for the various chapters within your book. (If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, read the fiction section for this week instead.)
Let’s start with chapter titles. Chapter titles are like street signs, marking the different areas of information for your readers. Therefore you want to make them straightforward and easy to understand. The reader won’t be able to find your chapter on different styles of leadership if that chapter is titled “Which One Are You?” A better title would be “The Four Types of Leaders.” This tells the reader exactly what information to expect.
If you still want to use creative chapter titles, try using colons and subtitles to add that necessary clarity, e.g. “Which One Are You: The Four Types of Leaders.” This lets you flex your creative muscles while still providing an adequate outline for your audience.
Book titles for nonfiction should follow similar guidelines, but can go a bit further into the creative realm. An eye-catching title that makes the reader stop and say, “Wait, what?” is better than one that blends in with the scenery. Just make sure to follow it up with a clear, direct subtitle to let them know what the book is about. Check out the Amazon pages of your favorite nonfiction books to see what I mean.
To come up with a creative title, write down a list of words related to your book’s content: themes, topics, goals, evoked feelings, etc. See if any of those words (or a combination of them) spark an idea. If not, write down some synonyms for each of those words and try again. Write the words on different slips of paper and mix them around on your desk. Write them on a whiteboard and erase the ones you don’t like until you narrow it down. Come up with a title that has nothing to do with the book and then try to tweak it into actually relating to your topic. See if you can use words from the first line of the book itself. There are tons of ways to generate title ideas, and over time one of them will yield a title you like.
Unless you already have an ideal title in mind, this method will probably not yield a “perfect” title. Perfect titles are rare, and you should feel blessed if you have one. Just remember that your title has one job: to tell your reader what your book is about and get them interested enough to read the first page. After that, the content of your book will do the rest.
What are you going to title your book? What’s the best book title you’ve ever seen on shelves?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Unlike informational books, fiction and narrative nonfiction don’t necessarily need chapter titles. The problem with chapter titles in narrative books is that they often give away pieces of the plot before the reader actually gets to them. If the characters spend an entire book searching for buried treasure, and then the reader comes to a chapter titled “Opening the Box,” they know before reading a word that this is the chapter where the characters find the treasure. If handled improperly, chapter titles can ruin an otherwise suspenseful story.
If you do use chapter titles, don’t let them drop major plot points on the reader, but do have them relate somehow to the chapter’s content. A good way to do this is to use thematic or metaphorical titles rather than ones that directly state what happens during the chapter. If you’re really good at this, you can even use the chapter titles to misdirect the reader into thinking one thing is going to happen, when you actually spring a different twist on them.
If you don’t want to bother with all of that, just number your chapters instead.
For your book’s actual title, you have a couple of options. You can give the book a straightforward title that says exactly what the book is about (e.g. the Harry Potter books, most John Grisham novels, every episode of Friends), use a title lifted from one of the book’s themes, settings, or subplots (e.g. most Michael Connelly novels), or go with something more abstract and thematic (e.g. The Dresden Files books, many James Patterson novels).
The first one is the easiest to do. Pick out whatever you consider the most important “thing” in the book—a character, setting, event, or object—and make that thing the title. This runs the risk of sounding a bit boring at first glance, but it makes it easy for readers to remember what the book is about. You’ll never need to wonder which Harry Potter book is the one that introduces Azkaban, because it’s right there in the title.
To do the second type of title creation, make a list of the themes and main ideas of your book. Include any similes or metaphors your characters use to describe important aspects of the story. Find one of these that encompasses the feel of the book as a whole and use that as your title. With this method, readers won’t necessarily know what the book is about before picking it up, but they’ll remember it afterward because the title will link back to one of the main ideas.
The third one (an abstract title) is the hardest to do well. You run the risk of making your title too abstract, to the point where your reader won’t understand it even after reading the whole story. On the other hand, this is a great way to tie all of the titles in a book series into a particular theme. For example, all of The Dresden Files books use two-word thematic titles, while Patterson’s early Alex Cross titles derive from children’s nursery rhymes.
There’s no right way to create a thematic title, but if you’re having trouble getting started, try this: Make a list of the themes and main ideas of your book, including overarching emotions and feelings. Then let yourself free-associate for a while, writing down any words, phrases, and metaphors that come to mind when you look at your list. Play with the words. Eventually something might spark an idea that leads to a great title.
It’s important with this method to run your title by some trusted friends to see if they think it makes sense. What seems like a brilliant metaphor to you might confuse everybody else. If that’s the case, keep working with it until you find a title that your readers will “get” after reading the book, without you having to explain it to them.
No matter what method you choose, remember that you will probably not come up with a “perfect” title. Those are hard to invent, and you shouldn’t spend too much time freaking out about it. As long as your title encompasses your book’s theme and gets people interested enough to start reading, your book should be able to do the rest itself.
Do you have a title for your book yet? What titling method does your favorite author use?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Call of the Wild by Jack London