How to: [insert suggested title here]

Published 6:08 pm Friday, September 11, 2020

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“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

That’s the old saying, anyway. It’s a simple way of reminding people to not rely on first impressions. The story inside may be much more interesting than what’s displayed on the surface. You never know until you check it out and look inside.

That’s all well and good, of course. But I’ll say that even if you don’t judge a book by its cover, you can absolutely judge it by its title! First impressions are important, and the title is probably the first thing you learn about a book (or movie or TV show, et cetera) before anything else. A story with a good title will absolutely catch people’s interest and draw in a curious audience.

In my opinion, for example, one of the best titles of all time for a children’s book is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” by Judi Barrett. It takes a simple phrase kids probably hear all the time (“cloudy with a chance of…”) and then turns it on its head by adding meatballs at the end. That certainly ought to make any kid turn their head back for a double-take while browsing a bookshelf. The title gives the reader a taste of what’s in store if they decide to open up the book.

There are plenty of excellent titles out there to choose from. Some I remember because I’ve read the book or seen the movie (like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s “Good Omens” or Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”), but others are just so memorable that they stick in my head anyway. I’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” but I sure do remember how long and crazy that title is.

For any aspiring writers out there, you all probably know already how hard it is to come up with a good title. As much as we’d all like to just slap on the first working title that comes to mind, it’s not always the best one for the story. So I’ve put together a quick and fun how-to guide for titles, featuring my own personal methods:

Step one: Procrastinate. You don’t technically need a title before you start writing. Or even while you’re writing. Just don’t think about it at all for as long as possible.

Step two: Think of the first, easiest title that comes to mind when you’re finally done writing. Maybe just one word or phrase that sums up the story. Maybe a word that’s integral to the plot. Maybe a very obscure but meaningful phrase used once in the story for dramatic impact. Maybe simply the name of the protagonist.

Step three: Toss out all of those ideas you just came up with. (Especially the “name of the protagonist” one.)

Step four: Repeat step one and procrastinate again. Maybe try editing your story instead for inspiration. Maybe go clean something to give your brain a break from thinking. Maybe do all the other things you’ve been procrastinating on. (To be honest, writing is a great hobby to motivate yourself to do anything BUT writing.)

Step five: Take suggestions from friends. Note: they don’t have to actually read your story to make title suggestions! Just tell them to throw random words at you.

Step six: Disregard friend suggestions and try again yourself. Think about a title that might sum up a common theme in the story. Think about a title that references an important quote from a main character. Think about phrases that are memorable and easy to say.

Step seven: Spiral into panic that you may never come up with the perfect title for your story. Briefly contemplate the irony of potentially using “Untitled” as the title.

Step eight: Take a break until you relax again. Realize that you don’t have to have the “perfect” title for your story. You’ve already come up with plenty of options to choose from, so pick the one you like the best, the one that pops in your head whenever you think about the story. That’s it. That’s your title.

Not every title is going to be as good as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” but you can still settle on something you’ll be happy with and will leave a pretty good first impression.

Holly Taylor is a staff writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.