J Almon Polk - Writer's Toolbox


What first catches the eye and mind—while browsing through a bookstore for a good read to buy, or flicking through your on-demand movie selections for a good film to watch (ignoring the jacket cover designs)—is the “title.”

Title is as important as a well decorated store showcase window, or a well-appointed menu displayed outside a restaurant; if done correctly, it’ll grab and lure your potential customers into your world.

Consider this: title consists of only one or few words, or at the most a phrase. Sounds simple enough. But, for me, naming my work is one of the most difficult challenges I face in my writing.

Story Title Crafting Tools

I have a tool box for writing. In it I’ve collected an assortment of prose crafting tools. One of them is a book: The Writer’s Book of Wisdom – 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft. It was written by Steven Taylor Goldsberry, an English professor at the University of Hawaii. Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend his presentation at the Hawaii Writers’ Conference (sadly, now defunct), wherein he talked about the techniques of crafting a killer title.

J Almon Polk - Learn from Masters

Rule # 44 – Collect Good Titles and Practice Writing Your Own

In his book Steven Goldsberry talks about six ways of crafting a great title.

  1. Oxymoronic. This is putting words together that are at odds with each other. Scorching Ice. Dark Light. Black Sun. Or putting the words in juxtaposed phrases. Sun at Midnight. He cites two oxymoronic titles from great works of writing: Way of the Peaceful Warrior and Little Big Man.
  2. Poetic. Emphasis on sounds and rhythms of words. Angela’s Ashes. For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Sailor Who Fell Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. (Sometimes comes from the Classics, mentioned below.)
  3. Clichés. Taking those tired clichés and twisting them into new catchy titles. Pay It Forward. Honor Among Steves. Go Slay the Kite.
  4. Thematic. Enticing the readers with basic universal categories, such as sex, money, violence, religion, health, politics, environment, and so on. For example, sex = Delta of Venus. Violence = The War of the Worlds. Or combining the thematic, adding a tinge of oxymoronic flavor: The Happy Hooker. The Battling Bibles.
  5. Phrases. Ordinary words may take on new power when elevated to the status of a title. He cites several examples: Drive, He said; Dude, Where’s My Car. I can think of another: Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Was Afraid to Ask.
  6. Classics. These are titles picked from embedded lines in classical works of literature, or poetry. From Shakespeare came Brave New World; The Sound and the Fury. From the Bible came Blessed Are the Peacemakers; Inherit the Wind.

Lastly, Goldsberry warns us about using abstract words in your title: Malice; Dream; Agony. These are too vague, carrying no emotional power. He recommends you twist the abstractions, if you must use them, and come up with catchier versions. Field of Dreams. M Is for Malice.

So, what do you think? Remember, when people talk about your work, they’d mention it by your title: “Have you read (insert your killer title here)?” By word-of-mouth, or by e-mails, or by blogs, or by any other means, the title is what spreads out into the world, like an ambassador of your work, a representation of all that stands behind it, a marker and doorway into your story world. Please share with me and others if you have any unique story title naming techniques.

Categories: Toolbox


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