Writing Titles: A Steampunk Perspective

There are fashions in titles, just like everything else.

The classic book title takes the pattern of ‘(The) **** of (the) ****’. I can look over to my bookcase and see four such titles in that style: ‘The Dolphins of Pern’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses’, & ‘The Sword of Shanarra’. This could mean that this style is overdone, but it just means that it is a classic type. It works, so don’t knock it. Oh, and the ‘of’ may be an ‘and’ in some titles of this type, like ‘The Power and the Passion’.

Then there is the clean and simple use of a one word title. Gregory Maguire favours this type: ‘Lost’, ‘Wicked’. So do many other authors. It has the advantage that you can use words that have multiple meanings, and you don’t give away anything major of the plot. A single word title is strong and powerful. The addition of a ‘The’ in front of a single word doesn’t weaken the effect, like in ‘The Awakening’ or ‘The Bribe’. Next level is adding a modifier, like an adjective, e.g. ‘The Little Country’ or ‘The King’s Buckaneer’.

Quotes are often a good source of titles. ‘Band of Brothers’ is from Shakespeare…you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare as he covered everything about the human condition in his body of work. Personally, I like to use bits from old sayings: ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’. You can use lyrics from songs, anything that gives your title meaning. You can also twist a saying, paticularly if your book is a parody.’Wyrd Sisters’ by Terry Pratchett is an example. The cleverer the twist, and the more appropriate to your novel, can make this style of title a zinger.

Lately, there has been a flourish of longer titles. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ is an excellent example of this type. I avoid this style myself, but when it works it works well. The Victorians loved long titles, and they also liked to add a comment to the title. If you are writing Steam Punk or historical novels, this style is very suitable.

What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable. Something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away. Some people like to put titles on their chapter headings (guilty). Titles are important, as a weak title can drive away readers before they even get to read the main text.

Some writers have a natural knack at picking a good title. If you know someone like this, cultivate their friendship. (Joke, joke.) However, you can work at your title to improve it, just like anything else. Make a huge list of titles, and cull down to the one you like. Use a working title, and then change it when something more appropriate takes your fancy. Buy book of quotations, or start looking up lyrics on the internet.

If you are getting too frustrated with finding a title, just leave it for a while. Come back when you are calm and relaxed. Reread your piece. Sometimes, the title will be hidden in the very words in your story.

(This article was originally a note I wrote on Facebook about five years ago. It still is relevant.)


Filed under Steampunk, Titles, writing, Writing Style

7 responses to “Writing Titles: A Steampunk Perspective

  1. I agree, coming up with a good title is really hard. I always envy those people that seem to have a knack for it. Earlier this year I was trying and failing to come up with a title for something, so in an attempt to make the process less painful I analysed some fantasy title trends (also wrote a post about it: http://thoughtsonfantasy.com/2014/06/30/judging-a-book-by-its-name-10-common-trends-in-fantasy-titles/) and found a few similar patterns to the ones you mention. The process did help because it gave me ideas for different title styles I could try.

    There are a few titles out there I just love because they are so intriguing and perfect e.g. “Ready Player One”, “Cinder”, “Shiver” and “Neverwhere”. Mine never seem to be that good, but like you said, at least they can be worked on and improved.

  2. An excellent post. I agree that finding an apt, catchy, appealing title is difficult. For my own stories, I’ve used all the patterns you mentioned, including a Shakespeare quote. I have one additional constraint; my publisher chose a script font for my titles that doesn’t show up well when my covers are displayed as thumbnails. The titles are completely illegible if they’re too long, so I favor shorter titles.

    • I favour short over long when writing fiction, except when writing a Neo-Victorian Retro-futuristic style piece. I particularly like one word or short phrase titles: Dragonfly; Stuff and Nonsense; Rosemary for Remembrance; Unbeatable. When writing science articles, or articles for this Neo-Victorian blog, I then have to favour long titles as a genre constraint.

  3. I love creating titles. It is like solving a puzzle. Each one has its own tale to tell or atmosphere it wants to project.

  4. Pingback: Writing Titles – a 2021 Update | Cogpunk Steamscribe

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