Columns > Published on November 18th, 2021

How to Come up with the Perfect Story Title

Header image via SHVETS production

How do you come up with the perfect story title? I wish I knew! LitReactor should have found someone who knew what they were doing to write this article. Richard Thomas recently wrote an article on multi-pronged story hooks that addressed titles. Definitely check that out. He’s the kind of guy who knows what he’s doing. I’m just winging when it comes to titles—and writing too. Maybe that’s what picking a great title is all about. Searching in the darkness for the right treasure, the perfect words, that may in fact not exist at all. But you have to call your story something, so let’s see if we can figure this out together.

Short and Sweet

When I first started writing for money, I barely knew how to put a story together. I thought I was good. Some other people thought I was pretty good back then, too. We were all wrong. Revisiting those early stories gives me headaches.

I also had this thing where I liked to come up with one-word titles whenever I could. If that was a thing I was known for, that might be a cool signature of sorts, but no one knew me. One-word titles sometimes stood out, but looking back, I think they were often forgettable. As I started cataloging my stories in recent years, I often had to open up those one-word titled stories and read a bit to remember what they were about. If I couldn’t remember them, how was anyone else supposed to?

I did a shared collection with author T. Fox Dunham years ago that is now out of print. Looking at the table of contents is crazy, because he was using longer titles that built mystery and interest, while my titles popped out between each of his like a sharp jab.

See for yourself in this sample from that TOC:

  • "Rip"
  • "Everyone Has an Aunt Gladys"
  • "Guess"
  • "Dancing at Albie’s Pub at the End of the World"
  • "Hate"
  • "The White Room Under the Pyramid Where the Faceless Go"
  • "Messenger"
  • "The Lion & the Monkey Man"
  • "Scene"

Can you tell which titles were mine? The collection was called The Rip and Rhythm, but there was no rhythm to the TOC. I’m not saying one-word titles are always a mistake. I am saying that I left a lot of potential on the table by sticking with this naming protocol. I was being more cute than I was hooking in the reader, catching their interest with the first part of the story they saw.

Long, Clever, Ironic

I don’t do this all the time, writing a purposely long title, but it has potential to catch the reader’s attention. It is essentially the opposite of my one-word phase.

I wrote a story that started out with the title “Bible Robot.” It was a word combination that stuck in my head from a snippet of conversation. I added it to the running list of potential titles on my dry erase board. I’ll talk more about that later. The story wasn't the greatest, but I felt the title, as unusual as it was, fell a little short. After finishing the story, I renamed it “One True Holy Bible Robot and All His Files Sacred and Historic.” The title may be grander than the story in this case, but I do feel this captures the tone and grabs potential readers’ attention better.

This year for NaNoWriMo, I’m writing an over-the-top zombie novel titled Ruthless Rabid Raging Ravenous Rampaging Remorseless Repulsive Revolting Repugnant Zombies! Obviously, the title is a gimmick. The whole story is a gimmick. I’m writing it as one 50,000 word long action scene. The title is more likely to gain attention than if I used just one of those words.

I also wrote a story called “Incident Report Concerning the Bizarro Fiction Reading Hosted Last Thursday at the New Bitterwood Primitive Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi with Ethel, the Former Chair of the Women’s Missions Committee.” The title speaks for itself, I guess.

These titles are hooks in the sense that they stand out, because they are a bit ridiculous, and the length is part of that. It is a gimmick though, and will grow old if every title I write leans into this style.

From Everywhere

Another habit I had early in my career was that I wrote short stories to market. I found the market, I considered the theme, came up with an idea, and wrote that story. And I usually gave it a one-word title. If I had to come up with a story from scratch, with no anthology theme to bounce off of, I was kind of at a loss. When these “written for specific themes” stories were rejected, I subjected other editors to these mismatched tales over and over. Looking back on my writing career is giving me heartburn.

Jumping forward to where I’m not the greatest of all time, but I’m much, much better in comparison to who I used to be, I hear more and more from people who are impressed by what I’ve created, either short stories or longer works. I’m proud of the improvement I’ve made. Ten or twenty years from now, if I’m still around and still in my right mind, I may look back on my current work with the same eye-rolling embarrassment. We can only hope.

Today, I do a lot of short story writing live on Twitch. I start with a title and invent the story around it as people watch. I write these stories from beginning to end in one sitting in front of an audience.

I get ideas for titles everywhere, including books I read, conversations I’ve had or overhear, a typo that strikes me as interesting, catchy phrases, and more. As I find things that stand out to me, I write them on a dry erase board in my office for later use. Sometimes I have a story idea attached to them already. Sometimes I come up with a story concept and look to the board for a title to go with it. Often, the potential title inspires something, but it takes a little time to percolate into a story ready to be written. A title that piques interest is worth a lot. It can match the story closely or just close enough to draw the reader into it.

Some examples:

I read the phrase “hole in the basement of the universe” somewhere and held onto it until I wrote a story about a guy that jumps back and forth in time within his own mind to different points in his life.

I was talking about my faith and how it connected to my interest in horror. I ended up saying something like “worshipping a god who bleeds.” Someone said that would make a great title. I put it on the board. I ended up changing it into “Your God Bleeds” for a story title.

I wrote down “The Road Crossed the Chicken” as I thought about switching around the words in the old joke. I wrote a story for it about a strange boy who raises the dead. It’s been accepted for an anthology.

I wrote “Winner Digs the Grave” as a phrase in a novel and noted it for a potential short story title. I wrote a bloody apocalyptic combat story for it that was published recently.

I was playing twenty questions with one of my sons when he was little. We went through the usual questions. Is it alive? Was it ever alive? Turns out he had picked a dead animal as his thing for us to guess. I asked, which dead animal? He said, “I Am All the Dead Animals.” I used this for a story about a serial killer in captivity who is able to project into the minds of other killers and victims, experiencing both the killings and the deaths.

These kinds of titles strike my interest before I put them on the board, and then they have a certain punch that makes people interested in the story before they know anything about it.

The Profane

There are authors that create masterpieces of the gross and profane. They come up with titles for their audience that are almost unshareable with the uninitiated. I’ll let you hunt those down among extreme horror and bizarro authors’ work. I’ll share a few profane titles I’ve used.

One of my author friends took a picture of himself in a seersucker suit. He used the caption “Seersucker Motherfucker.” I asked him if I could use it for a title. He said that was fine. I wrote a Tarantino-style violent battle between two Southern families. It was nominated for a Splatterpunk Award. As you might guess, my mother was super proud.

I was sitting around thinking of how a character could commit the perfect murder, as one does in his or her spare time. I came up with something for a crime fiction story and named it a “Bastard’s Baptism.” That, of course, became the title.

I’ve also used the titles “Don’t Fuck with the Infinite”, “She Doesn’t Find Your Bullshit Amusing Anymore”, “Bitches and Moans”, “Close the Fucking Door” and “Sperm Herders of Jism Trail.” These types of titles have potential to attract attention, repel readers, and/or get books kicked off of Amazon or marked ineligible for advertising. As with some of the other naming conventions above, leaning into this one too often might lead to diminishing returns depending on your audience.

You Can Do Whatever You Want, But You Might Want to Avoid Certain Things

You can get away with more in short stories than with novels when it comes to titles. There are higher stakes at play when trying to get readers’ eyes on your novel. That being said, these are things to consider when naming any story.

• Made-up words in a title

Naming your book after the alien race, alien world, the dragon, or some other made-up thing has some downsides. Publishers hate it. Readers can’t spell it. No one can say it. Being unable to pronounce a thing makes it difficult to remember. Search engines aren’t kind to it. I’ve read some great books that do this, but you’re starting yourself off at a disadvantage, especially with a novel.

You can give up in frustration and just go watch TV, but you’ll see nothing but titles there too. You can’t get away from them!

• Hard to pronounce words

The words are real, but they are the high-point words in Scabble. For many readers, it might as well be a made-up word. A title like that does stand out and makes the author feel smart, but may not serve the goal of gaining readers.

• Words that are hard to say together

The words themselves are fine and accessible, but placed together they create problems. Rhyming words in a title can work, but near rhymes might trip up the tongue. Words that have dramatic shifts in the pronunciation between vowels can cause even the author to stumble when trying to say them. You don’t want a title you might trip over in an interview.

• Titles that are confusing

I cowrote a novel with Armand Rosamilia that we named The Enemy Held Near. Originally, I wanted to do a play on the phrase “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” So, I was going to use Enemy Closer. The problem was “closer” has two pronunciations. Enemy Closer is a cool title when you say closer as in keeping someone near. It means something else when you say closer as in someone who closes a deal. Then, you’re apparently writing a haunted house story about an antagonistic stockbroker ghost. Not an unworkable idea, but a confusing title. Unusual phrasings that garble the meaning are more trouble than they’re worth.

• A title even you can’t remember

If a title is long or complex and you can’t say it without reading it off the cover, that makes it harder to promote.

• A title already used or used a bunch of times

Making a title too easy, especially if it is catchy, can find you promoting a book among dozens of other books with the same name. Readers searching for your book get lost in endless identical titles. Your catchy title gets buried.

• Don’t bore yourself

If it doesn’t inspire you, it won’t do much for anyone else either.

• Changing Your Title

You don’t want to get pushed into naming your story something you hate because the publisher has a wild idea or the editor says, “There’s another story in the anthology with the same title.” Still, if you hold too tightly to a title the gatekeepers warn you against, you might find yourself running afoul of some of the things to watch out for above. If you fall in love with your title, you might be unaware of its flaws.

Books and Their Covers

Compared to writing a good story, coming up with a great title is far less important. The problem is that the title is the first thing most people will see. It is what everyone will use as a holder in their brain for the story. So, no pressure or anything.

You can write a story before you have the title. You can use a placeholder title and then come up with something better later. You can rename a story any time you like along the way. You can give up in frustration and just go watch TV, but you’ll see nothing but titles there too. You can’t get away from them!

As with most things in writing, the more you practice it the better you get at it. Just as you draw story ideas from many places, titles can come the same way. Decide what you want to say about the story and how the title might help you sell that to readers.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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