Best Book TitlesDec 20, 2019
“In my younger and more vulnerable years,” (to borrow from the opening line of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) an author would write a novel many times over many drafts, discarding huge amounts of material, then set about the business of the book title. Scott Fitzgerald struggled with the title of his most famous work and it came after the novel was complete.
To find the best book title for your work, you should start thinking about it before you put pen to paper as a good book title should encapsulate what’s most interesting about your story and likely to have a strong appeal to your reader.
The best book titles contain the DNA for your intentions for the story.
Starting with the book title can help you focus and possibly reduce the number of drafts you write. A book title generator cannot know your intentions, and your intentions just like the idea for your book should start with the genre of fiction in which you are writing, so that readers, publishers and literary agents know which fiction market you are writing in and where to put this title in the book store.
Here are some of the kinds of clusters by genre one might consider when titling a work of fiction:
Literary old school
A line from a poem, the Bible or recycling of the title of a former great work.
For Whom The Bell Tolls, Far From the Madding Crowd.
The role of the main character delivered in high anonymous style.
The Milkman, Convenience Store Woman, The Mother-in-Law.
Grand scale literary
The name of the main character.
From Anna Karenina to Olive Kitteridge via Circe.
Literary suspense, adventure to up lit
The name of the character with alliterative adjectives.
From The Great Gatsby to The Magnificent Mrs Mayhew, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
A significant and original feature of the narrative, or location, one word must be quirky and pique interest.
The Keeper of Lost Things, The Librarian of Auschwitz, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Botanists Daughter, My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Tiger’s Wife, The Book of Dust.
The character’s state or occupation plus an ominous adjective.
The Silent Patient.
An injunction or command, with menace.
Do No Harm, Bring Me Back, No Way Out, No Mercy.
The closed circle suspense mystery
Situational, where it’s located or the event that triggers further events.
The Dinner, The Slap, The Trial, The Hunting Party.
Let’s dig into the history of book titles
A title is a statement of literary intention.
As a form in itself it has become increasingly nuanced over time, but it’s still possible to decipher the motives and meanings behind titles, and quite fascinating. Once armed you can title your book with confidence and sharpen your creative intentions. When we know what we’re doing, as authors, we tend to do it rather well. When we don’t we tend to do it rather badly.
The modern novel is considered to have started in 1605 with The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes better known as Don Quixote.
‘If there is one novel you should read before you die, it is Don Quixote,’ Ben Okri said at the Nobel Institute as he announced the results of their 2002 authors’ poll of best novels of all time ‘Don Quixote has the most wonderful and elaborated story, yet it is simple.’ Don Quixote came top of the list among voters including Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer.
In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work. This is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; this is the bitterest irony which man was capable of conceiving. And if the world were to come to an end, and people were asked there somewhere: “Did you understand your life on earth, and what conclusions have you drawn from it?” man could silently hand over Don Quixote.
Thus the long-form story of the novel began with the name of its main character. As many of my writers on our novel-writing course know, a novel is essentially a moral journey.
Fiction titles from the beginning
The use of the main character’s name as the preference for the titling of a novel continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries through Barry Lyndon, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, The History of Tom Jones, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Moll Flanders, Fanny Hill, Amelia, Camilla, Cecilia, Clarissa, Justine, Pamela, to Robinson Crusoe. During this period, the name was chosen to be realistic.
It was still the preferred mode for titling a book in the nineteenth century until we get to Dickens where the names suggest character and are sometimes chosen for alliterative play – from Oliver Twist to Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens took the same approach to place names with invented locales to imply his theme as with Bleak House.
We begin to see the increasing humour and whimsy of the description of the main character as an addition to the name – harking back to the sometimes omitted The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote – which give notice to the reader of the narrative style they might expect inside with additional descriptors of ‘adventures’ or ‘history’, ‘portrait’ or ‘mystery’. We can see the ‘mood’ in the contrivance beginning perhaps with Wuthering Heights.
The use of a name implies that this particular person is somehow distinct or worthy of note. This is particularly pertinent pre-twenty-first century where the name is female. This, says the author, is a woman unlike others: Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Mary Barton, Emma and so on. She is of note, unlike others.
In modern times, being a woman worthy of a novel does not require such distinction and eponymously titled female novels (without descriptors) tend to be quieter and less of an adventure or pageant wrought on a smaller canvas.
Eponyms plus Intrigue
The addition of the descriptor – like the Ingenious Nobleman – was taken up again in the twentieth century, when after a proliferation of eponymously titled novels, being worthy of a novel did not make a person distinctive per se perhaps, but with the rise of consumerism the additional descriptor supplied target audience intent – well, look at this chap! (The Great Gatsby.)
The emergence of genres of fiction such as Adventure and Mystery required the addition of notes for the target audience to give a flavour of what to expect from the book title. The intention of the author to provide social commentary and scale is clear in the breadth of range (anonymised) and the use of occupations or callings to stand for a group of people.
A good title does more than grab a reader’s attention, it explains what to expect inside and aims to influence people.
Working on a larger social canvas, some writers deploy a witty ‘connective’ between two apparently opposing forces to show the range they intend to cover. From Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, through to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Gaskell’s North and South, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and onwards to D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers later.
Thomas Hardy was quite an innovator, and the title of his first published novel is quite striking for the times – Desperate Remedies (1871). Its intention seems to fit within the ‘morality’ cluster above. His second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), is location-driven. Thomas Hardy’s third novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), is an exception to the rule; it references a poem. It comes from ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray.
In 1872 Hardy was flattered to receive a letter from Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, inviting him to contribute a serial. Realising that this was an important opportunity but without a book worked out, he proposed the mere outline of a pastoral story in which ‘the chief characters would probably be a young woman-farmer, a shepherd, and a sergeant of cavalry’. He gave the title as Far from the Madding Crowd. The scope and range of the title left him free to pursue the tale wherever it went. As he wrote, Hardy’s original, simple outline developed into a carefully interwoven tale in which the lives of the principal characters are played out against the backdrop of a close-knit community and the wider natural world.
Catchy titles of the nineteenth century explored the emerging literary taste of the reader for a curious incident or a mystery and worked creatively to grab people’s attention with a taste of atmosphere or intrigue, or to plunge the reader into a dilemma or testing situation.
The recent taste for the novel titles of the popular up-lit genre (A Man Called Ove, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) returns to the oldest convention of book titles that the story is the main character's moral journey.
Book titles of the 20th century
In the twentieth century, the eponym is old news and almost gone. In fact, the title form from 1900-2000 is dominated by one form.
The citation or quotation. A referential, deferential, preferential doffing of the hat either to the Bard, the poets, or the Bible. (Plus one or two apparently surreal titles which hail from common parlance or slang.)
Among the commonly recognised top 100 novels of the century (Time Magazine, The Guardian, The Modern Library and Goodreads) this is by far the favoured form for a book title as the market for fiction grew and became more democratic. More readers!
It is far less inventive than we might expect of the century in which the world shrank and man walked on the moon, and even book titles of apparently surreal invention for genres like science fiction are in fact quite conservative with hidden references.
So why all this dissembling and forelock-tugging in book titles that suggest that a novel’s purpose is to afford the author an entrée into the literary set. Why?
A grand canvas – the reference makes a universal timeless statement on the condition of the human spirit
Room to manoeuvre – the author confers upon herself or himself the space to explore a changing theme or multiple themes beyond one character’s journey and suggests the intention to do so with the title
The title was given either post-operatively, and not always by the author but by the editor, a friend or spouse
The desire to belong to the literary set in shifting social classes, mass migrations and uncertain times
In the twentieth century, we have evidence that many great authors saw the purpose of the novel as conferring upon author and subject a ‘sense of belonging’.
Their aim was to win friends and influence people who might help them spread the word, this in an era before mass marketing and social media.
The Sun Also Rises, The Song of Solomon, The Power and the Glory...
Lord of the Flies (William Golding) is a literal translation of Beelzebub, from 2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16.
The Grapes of Wrath was suggested as one of a few book title ideas by Steinbeck’s wife, Carol Henning. The phrase ‘grapes of wrath’ is from the Book of Revelation, passage 14:19-20, which reads, ‘So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.’ But here is a second source that the title is a reference to, and this one is the famous song ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (1861). Because the song was written in the context of American history and politics, it connects to The Grapes of Wrath predicting the end of evil and coming of justice.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Edith Wharton considered several title ideas for the novel about Lily Bart; two were germane to her purpose. A Moment’s Ornament appears in the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s (1770–1850) poem, ‘She was a Phantom of Delight’ (1804) which describes an ideal of feminine beauty. But the title Edith Wharton chose for the novel was The House of Mirth (1905), taken from the Old Testament:
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
— Ecclesiastes 7:4
Go Tell It On the Mountain, the title of James Baldwin’s book, is a reference to the gospel song, a popular Christmas carol because its lyrics refer to Jesus Christ’s birth.
There are more curiosities from inside the novel afoot in the best book titles. To Kill a Mockingbird was the second choice title for Harper Less after Go Set a Watchman (which is a Biblical reference from Isaiah 21:6) and is a reference to the loss of innocence in the novel. In fact my cluster dubbed ‘Numbers’ are curiosities from within those novels, but I clustered them apart as catchy titles, interesting with authority and appeal.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh comes from ‘The Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot:
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is from ‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald comes from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats.
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster is not so much a location-based title after all! It comes from ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman.
Passage to India!
Struggles of many a captain-tales of many a sailor dead!
Over my mood, stealing and spreading they come,
Like clouds and cloudlets in the unreach'd sky.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner comes from Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI. Odysseus has travelled to the Underworld, essentially to get directions. Once there, however, he’s bombarded by the ghosts of all his dead comrades, Agamemnon tells the story of his own death.
As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck comes from Robert Burns ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough’.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust comes from ‘Sonnet 30’ by William Shakespeare.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste
Endless Night by Agatha Christie is from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The title was inspired by a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Gentleman Rankers’.
Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is from ‘Meditation XVII’ by John Donne.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is from ‘The Lonely Hunter’ by William Sharp.
O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing.
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou comes from ‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings – I know why the caged bird sings!
The subversive or underclass reference
The low-brow or LO-FI reference is a rising trend in the twentieth century and will explain some of the titles you may have considered interesting and help you come up with slightly subversive book title ideas.
Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men was published in 1946, and as we saw in the last blog, the title is derived from a low-brow source – ‘Humpty Dumpty’.
First titled Sebastian Dangerfield, J.P Donleavy’s book of 1955 was retitled The Ginger Man. There are scores of guesses and much speculation about the title, would-be meanings ranging from slang for male genitalia to the most commonly believed theory: a connection to the childhood tale of The Gingerbread Man, whose song, ‘Run, run, as fast as you can; you can’t catch me I'm the gingerbread man’ does seem to fit Dangerfield’s journey in the novel.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey comes from a child’s rhyme, which also serves as the epigraph. The epigraph reads ‘One flew east, one flew west, / One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’.
The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler is a gangster euphemism for death; the final pages of the book refer to a rumination about ‘sleeping the big sleep’.
One of my favourite titles, The Postman Always Rings Twice is from a 1934 novel by James M. Cain. The title is a red herring in that no postman appears or is even alluded to. In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he had with the screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript, noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. In his biography of Cain, Roy Hoopes recounted the conversation between Cain and Lawrence, noting that Lawrence did not say merely that the postman always rang twice but also that he was sometimes so anxious waiting for the postman that he would go into his backyard to avoid hearing his ring. The tactic inevitably failed, Lawrence continued, because if the postman’s first ring was not noticed, his second one, even from the backyard, would be. As a result of the conversation, Cain decided upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank’s situation at the end of the novel. With the ‘postman’ being God or fate, the ‘delivery’ meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first ‘ring’ when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again and this time the ring was heard; Frank is wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora and then sentenced to die.
Anthony Burgess explained thus the meaning and origin of the book title for A Clockwork Orange (1962). He had overheard the phrase ‘as queer as a clockwork orange’ in a London pub in 1945 and assumed it was a Cockney expression. In Clockwork Marmalade, an essay published in The Listener in 1972, he said that he had heard the phrase several times since that occasion. He also explained the title in response to a question from William Everson on the television programme Camera Three in 1972:
‘Well, the title has a very different meaning but only to a particular generation of London Cockneys. It’s a phrase which I heard many years ago and so fell in love with, I wanted to use it, the title of the book. But the phrase itself I did not make up. The phrase ‘as queer as a clockwork orange’ is good old East London slang and it didn’t seem to me necessary to explain it. Now, obviously, I have to give it an extra meaning. I’ve implied an extra dimension. I’ve implied the junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined. I’ve brought them together in this kind of oxymoron, this sour-sweet word.’ While addressing the reader in a letter before some editions of the book, the author says that when a man ceases to have free will, they are no longer a man. ‘Just a clockwork orange,’ a shiny, appealing object, but ‘only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State...’
The glamour of setting
The setting or location, in an era where travel was aspirational and exotic, and a young man might dream of making a fortune overseas, becomes a way of appealing to a target audience with an adventure story.
Where to start with your book title ideas?
So, when you are considering book title ideas, think first of your fiction genre, and then of the appeal to your target audience. What is it they want? Is it to be someone else, or to be somewhere else? Who is your reader?
Over the course of the twentieth century, when the world expands from village-based gossip parlayed in the stories of Agatha Christie to after World War II and the emergence of new worlds of sci-fi and fantasy, book titles fall back on the adventure form but the convention turns to include the search for new opportunities in other places of the writer’s invention often.
In addition to the place settings of the novel present as a form previously, we see a growth in the number of titles which contrive a situation that places the main character in a tight spot. From a broad regional canvas such as American Pastoral or American Tragedy, the titles become more specific in terms of location – A High Wind in Jamaica, Tobacco Road, Revolutionary Road, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Bend in the River, Hotel du Lac, A Room with a View.
When we look at the range of novel title forms for the twentieth century, we will see that the ‘morality’ set-piece has gone. Gone are the ‘group adventures’, and many of the titles are haunted by a sense of lonely individuals in estranged psychological settings, states and situations.
Book titles of the late 20th century
Now we are going to look at the rise of other forms, one a cunningly disguised variant of the Reference, and the other the late twentieth-century ‘supermodel’ of titles.
Blindness was first used as a title by Henry Green for his first novel in 1926. Subsequently, he used the solo words to indicate a state of being in the world, reflecting the existential theories of the times and a solipsistic sense of man against machine perhaps.
Living (1929), Caught (1943), Loving (1945), Back (1946), Concluding (1948), Nothing (1950), Doting (1952).
(The existentialists Sartre and Camus used single notion titles – Nausea, The Stranger, The Fall, The Plague.)
Doffing their hats to these perhaps, later popular writers drew upon pre-Second World War philosophers when they used single (grand) title ideas.
In a way, one might see this as a new version of the use of references for book title ideas.
Deliverance (1970): James Dickey
Bliss (1981), Amnesia (2014): Peter Carey
Beloved (1987): Toni Morrison
Possession (1990): A.S. Byatt
Immortality (1990), Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), Ignorance (2000): Milan Kundera
Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008): Philip Roth
Damage (1991), Sin (1992), Oblivion (1995): Josephine Hart
Disgrace (1999): J.M. Coetzee
Atonement (2001): Ian McEwan
I dub this novel title form the Supermodel Solo as it denotes the intention to give us a big work of philosophical importance.
As the fortunes of literary fiction diminished in the second decade of the twenty-first century, so this form all but disappeared in favour of a more commercial form, implying a character-driven story given more page-turning appeal by the re-use of the addition of an appealing or intriguing setting or the urgency of a problem of a tight spot. But here already are its origins: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Portnoy’s Complaint, A House for Mr Biswas, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Book titles of the 21st century
Welcome to the 21st century, which began with the age of the more arcane book title, with the use of titles that challenged the reader.
References become more scientific, technical, ever-so academic, arcane, abstruse and sometimes unwelcoming of the less advanced reader in the post-religious era of the ivory tower author, far from the madding crowd. Populism was positively discouraged and our Supermodel Solo (one-word titles) became lofty, packing ivory tower heels.
A major rift opened; a chasm between high-brow literary canon and the common reader. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) title came from a book of literary criticism by Frank Kermode first published in 1967, subtitled Studies in the Theory of Fiction, the stated aim of which was ‘making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives’. The critic Boyd Tonkin noted that Barnes’s ‘show-off’ characters could be typical readers of Kermode’s work.
The word ‘darkmans’ is old thief cant for nighttime, Fingersmith is a thief and The Echo Maker comes from the Cherokee name for the birds, echo makers, calling to each other across the millennia. All of which makes The Echo Maker sound heavy-going – and occasionally it is but more challenging is the title A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.
We can imagine our authors kicking the backsides of their Bibles and poetry anthologies out the door in favour of academic textbooks, 19th-century social studies, science reference and technical manuals.
Some authors – like Colm Tóibín, Philip Roth, and Elizabeth Strout – bridged the gap with their reader by offering broad-based titles with traditional phrasing – location, character names or situational settings.
Some tempered the fine fare of their novel with the salt of a wise addition of ‘The Adventures of...’ (See Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).
Gone are the ‘Composed Atmospheric’ titles, few are the eponyms, au revoir to the cccupations, scarce are the curious incidents from the book or quotes from within.
The definitive statement
We have the definitive statement on common events or concepts. Clue – two words, begins with THE.
The Possessed, The Party, The Wake, The Sluts, The Afterlife, The Road, The Master, The Dinner, The Power.
Titles like Normal People or Ordinary People can be seen as versions of the author giving the ‘definitive’ statement on any matter.
We see the move from eponyms towards the addition of storytelling and curiosity which during an era of population explosion underscores the fact that we are dealing with a particular person.
Names are not enough on their own for the best book titles of the 21st century, but must be given storytelling context or purpose – Life of Pi, The One and Only Ivan, The Story of Lucy Gault, A Man Called Ove, The Book of Polly, The Papers of Tony Veitch, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Carry On Mr. Bowditch, The Lonely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender ...
What does this mean for you and your title?
Start by owning your intention
I’m going to say something about –
Someone who is rather loveable despite not being so at first glance (Name: natural or contrived and descriptor combination)
A romp or tale over many years with one main character – (The Adventures of, Chronicles of, Mystery, Life and Times etc)
A time or place to which we can all relate (reflective meditation or setting – the season or time or setting or place name – A Month in Summer or Brooklyn for example)
A change in perception and sense of belonging (psychological state – The Awakening)
These formats for your book title are both large enough in scale and yet simple enough to have a broad-based appeal.
Make sure you’re in the right genre
Reassure the reader that your intention (per your book title) matches their interests, taking into account the genre you’re writing. If it’s a thriller, you’ll be looking at the location-based book titles or the command-based titles for example.
Your story begins with your title.
At The Novelry, we can help you get your story straight from the start with The Finished Novel Course which will take you from idea to a publishing-ready book, and we will help you with every aspect of the writing process taking your routine from Eat, Pray, Love to The Golden Notebook within weeks of joining us.