Forget the cover. Titles are key.
Think about it. The title is the first word(s) of your story. People read a title before they read the back blurb. They are the unsung hero that draws in a reader.
Titles stir the imagination. A single word can invoke a sense of power. As a phrase, they can be as catchy as a jingle. Take the newly released Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, or something classic like The Grapes of Wrath. Catchy, aren’t they? They leave an impression because the words chosen for the titles were vivid.
Consider the alternatives. Kids of Blood and Bone doesn’t sound all that alluring, does it? Neither does Fruit of Retribution.
A single ill-chosen word can put a reader off, either by disinterest or offense. That’s not good for the awesome story you just wrote. Or sales.
Let’s talk about my title, The Lost City of Al-Kimiya. Originally, it was called Renavolena’s Floating Island, but “Renavolena” is tough to say, and there it was as the first word of the title! Not good. The previous title also didn’t convey one of the main elements of my story, which is alchemy. Instead of a floating island, I changed it to a lost city, implying a sense of adventure and mystery rather than magic (although magic does exist in my story).
When I researched already published titles with the word “alchemy” in them, I ran into a huge problem. There were too many. I had the shovel in my hand and a hole already six feet deep. My story was on its way to being buried under all those other titles. Hence the shift from “alchemy” – a word most everyone is familiar with – to a word linked specifically to my world. “Al-Kimiya” sounds exotic. It sounds like an ancient city lost to time. It sounds like it’s meant for only my story.
So we’ve established that the right words are paramount to capturing a reader’s imagination, but what do you do if you intend to turn your first title into a series?
Think of continuity. Your following novels are a continuation of your first. The same can be (and dare I say it, should be) applied to titles. If, like me, your first title starts with “the” then the following titles should likewise begin the same. J.K. Rowling did this with both her Harry Potter series and Fantastic Beasts series, although the latter is a film franchise.
That isn’t to say you can’t start with a new word, but each title should play off the one that came before it in either style or imagery. Take George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for an example that merges the two points I’ve made. Most titles begin the same: A Game of Thrones; A Feast for Crows; A Clash of Kings; A Dance of Dragons; A Dream of Spring. Then, out of nowhere, we get one variation in the series with the upcoming release of The Winds of Winter. I don’t know why the sudden change, but it doesn’t put me off because it keeps in line with the fanciful imagery.
Suzanne Collins also relies on imagery with her series. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay seem unrelated, but to those who have read the series, they know the titles follow a theme. Titles can be a neat little clue for what’s to come, after all. An invested reader will appreciate that.
The importance of titling can also be applied in a micro fashion. Lately, I’ve noticed many authors forgo including chapter titles, but I don’t. The Lost City of Al-Kimiya is a fantasy-mystery, so chances are that the people who pick up my book may enjoy deciphering the hidden meaning behind my chapter titles.
Let’s look at my prologue. The title of that chapter is “The Heist,” and it stands for the future event James agrees to join. The title has a double meaning, but a reader will only find that out when they get closer to the end of the story. Most, if not all of my chapter titles have a double – or even triple – meaning. I enjoyed creating them as well. Strange as it is to say, it made me feel that much closer to the readers.
There’s one more thing I’d like to mention, although this is more a personal issue than a general rule. Gender-heavy pronouns for titles just don’t fit in this day and age. You may lose half your readers at the title. The Swedish mystery series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is amazing, yet I can’t get over the use of “girl.” Why not use “woman” instead? That is what the character is, isn’t she? A woman. The issue I take with it is that the title alone belittles Lisbeth Salander. As a reader, we’re automatically set against her, set to demean her like most of the characters in Lisbeth Salander’s life. Although, who knows? Maybe that was the intention.
Do you feel the same about gender-heavy pronouns? Can you think of other examples? We have the aforementioned series plus Little Women, another novel I grew up loving but hating at the same time.
If you are doubting your current title, or are having trouble making one up, try compiling a list of your favorite novels and change one or two words. How do they sound? Did the imagery alter?