Updated: Jan 19, 2020
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Readers crave a hook, an attention grabber that pulls them in and makes them want to read more. This does not mean explosions and click-bait. In a piece of creative writing (especially prose), rather than simply shocking readers, the hook can intrigue, inspire, entertain, or persuade. This is where the title comes in.
A strong title has the ability to make readers open the book and turn the page. A weak title, on the other hand, can turn readers off or, even worse, get ignored completely.
To help write stronger, more attention-grabbing titles, consider the ways that titles can function in a piece of writing. An effective title can meet any—or all—of the following three demands.
Serve as a signpost
The best titles (even obscure or abstract ones) help guide the reader into the prose by signaling an image or a mood. Consider a title like Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous or Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. Both of these titles don’t give away the plot, but they indicate the mood of each book. The titles also hint at the genre while not falling into cliché or boring tropes.
This does not mean that all titles are universally liked. What one reader likes, another reader may hate. Provoking any kind of reaction is better than no reaction though.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden is another title that works to relate to readers by finding immediate connections in a common experience (or common family structure). The plot of the book isn’t obvious, but there is no way to ignore the mood Madden’s title creates.
Showcase the author’s style and voice
Even the shortest title can tell the reader a lot about what to expect. Genre and content aren’t the only things the title indicates to the reader. A strong title can capture the writer’s style and voice in just a few words.
Humor is the best example of where titles can shine. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman, for example, is humorous not just in the use of the reference to cereal, but in how it spins a familiar phrase like “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” The title sets up the expectation that the book will be funny which is appropriate given that the book is described as a “collection of eighteen comedic essays about popular culture.”
Karen Russell’s book titles also serve to showcase her fantastical, imaginative writing: Swamplandia, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Again, the reader can expect Russell’s books and short stories to live up to the evocative promise of fantasy mixed with reality.
Pass the table of contents test
Would this title leap off a page filled with other titles? Does it pass the “table of contents” test? Those are the questions writers can ask to really determine if the title will work to hook the reader. As always, taste is subjective. Instead of trying to please every reader (an impossible task), writers should focus on what they like as a reader.
I have a freebie for you at the end of the post so you can see this “Table of Contents test” in action. It’s the same worksheet that I use with my students and it is designed to help you create some new titles for your current work-in-progress (or a future project).
Try this activity: imagine a long list of titles (or open up any anthology filled with works by different writers) and pick the titles you want to read based on title alone. Ignore the author’s name. Focus on the title only. Then notice the titles that you are least likely to read (again, based on how they are written). What similarities do you see in the titles you liked and disliked?
For example, if you noticed that you were drawn to lots of short, snappy titles or that you liked the ones with alliteration and rhyme, you might try writing titles that follow a similar structure. And if you disliked long, wordy titles or titles that posed questions, don’t imitate those same choices in your own work. This is what it means to read like a writer. By paying attention to how even a short title is written, you can develop ideas about your own writing style.
Ask friends and family to try this activity, too. Notice what titles draw the most discussion. The titles that will leap off the page, so to speak, and pass the Table of Contents test are not always the ones you might have guessed. This includes the disliked titles. It may especially help to notice which titles don’t get a second look. Those are the titles to avoid.