Raymond Chandler once said, “A ‘good’ title is the title of a successful book.” That makes a kind of sense. If the book is a big success, that means the title was excellent. So a title that really makes no sense, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, is just fine since the book was made into a celebrated movie and still continues to sell.
It’s true that a title is part advertisement. However, I’d like to think that the quality of the title is due to more than just the commercial success of the book it’s attached to.
Here are a few qualities that make for particularly good titles:
A good title can take on multiple meanings and do some artistic work for the story. For instance, A Farewell to Arms is about leaving the war behind. But of course, the main character also says farewell to the arms of his wife, who dies at the end of the book. Love Life, by my teacher, the late James D. Houston, is another good example. The novel is about a woman’s love life. But it’s also a command – Love life. The Children Act by Ian McEwan is yet another good example. The title refers, literally, to a law, a legal act that protects children. But it obviously is also a complete declarative sentence. The children are acting upon those adults who are trying to care for them.
A good title can make use of metaphor in some way that does some artistic work for the book. The Blackboard Jungle and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are both good examples.
Scansion, as in a line of poetry, can be important. A good title can have a certain grace when spoken aloud. Perhaps this is one more reason why titles are sometimes taken from poems: Soldier from the War Returning is one example, among many.
Here is my Taxonomy of Titles. I don’t claim it is complete. I wrote posts about most of these categories, but not all of them. I hope these posts will help you find the right title for your works.
A Taxonomy of Titles
“To Build a Fire”
“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”
“Going After Cacciatto”
“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (combines action with character and place)
“The Prophet from Jupiter”
The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera
The Adventures of Augie March
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Where I Work”
“You’re Ugly, Too”
“The Year of Getting to Know Us”
“A Romantic Weekend”
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Tone – comic “
My Favorite Tumor”
“Bigfoot Stole my Wife”
The Grapes of Wrath
“Everything that Rises Must Converge”
A Farewell to Arms
The Sound and the Fury
“The Minister’s Black Veil”
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
All the Light We Cannot See