The Name Game – The 3 Types of Titles and Which You Should Choose

Hello, dontread faithful! With NaNoWriMo around the corner I’m stepping up my writing tutorial department every week! Tune in to get geared up!


Last week I looked at some of the things your title needs to do for you—he’s no freeloader; you need to put that boy to work! But this week I wanna take a step further away and talk about actually picking the title that’s right for your work. Yeah, sometimes the perfect title will just pop into your head like nobody’s business, sometimes it’ll be the thing that informs the narrative, but sometimes nothing quite sounds right.

Now for our purposes today, I’m going to divide literary titles into a few types—Eponymous, Conceptual, and Metaphoric. These are the basic classes of title as far as I can tell.


Ex. = Scarlet Letter, Pelican Brief, Oliver Twist

An Eponymous title is simply the name of a person, place, or thing which appears in the book, usually a principal subject of the narrative. These are very common titles because they are easy to think up and often distinct (at least, so long as your character’s name is distinct). The Eponym’s advantage is that it clearly points to one of the central entities in your novel. Its downfall is that it’s a bit literal; if there’s more than one central object or character in your novel it’s probably best not to use an eponym.

Ex. = Things Fall Apart, Hard Times, The Land Before Time

A Conceptual title describes in literal or colloquial expression an event or situation which takes place in the narrative—again usually the principal situation. Basically it’s a good way to tell the reader a little bit of what to expect, plot wise, and that’s its major selling point. A big drawback of this title is that sometimes it’s too vague or boring. If so, you might consider its cousin: The Metaphor

Ex. = Steel Magnolias, The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun

A Metaphorical title can be eponymous or conceptual, but it is not literal—that means you can refer to an entity or concept from your novel, but you cannot call it by its name. The main rule of a metaphorical title is that it describes a situation or character within the narrative using figurative language. In other words, give the person, thing, or event a nickname. These work well because they provide a sense of mystery and a mini puzzle to be solved in identifying to what the title refers—Steel Magnolias is about a group of women (often likened to flowers), who are strong (like steel). Get it? The main pitfall of the metaphor is that it can be overused or trite, so before you choose yours, see if anyone else has used it.

Some of the best titles can hit multiple of these notes: “A River Runs Through It” is a literal reference to the river in which the characters fish AND a figurative reference to the relationship between the main characters, thereby exposing some of the themes of the story.

Well… there is no hard and fast rule. Just like writing a novel, there’s no FORMULA perse, but there are some tried and true conventions. It’s gonna be up to you, but consider your tone, your themes, your plot, and your main characters. Try and balance them and see which comes out heaviest. Then, try a literal version of what you chose and a metaphorical version. Shop it around if you want an outside opinion–which feels best? Remember: the best titles link back to the work’s themes.

Still don’t believe titles are that important? Let’s try changing some of the classics up—for better or for worse:

The Scarlet Letter = Adultery and other Colonial Pastimes – Wrong tone, wouldn’t you agree?
The Pelican Brief = Oil Baron Attack – Again, the tone is slightly off and the one big spoiler is exposed.
Things Fall Apart = Africa Ain’t What it Used to Be – Wrong Tone, otherwise it encapsulates the major conceit of the work.
Hard Times = A Peasant’s Tale – This isn’t descriptive enough—peasants come in all shapes and sizes—it could be about anything.
Steel Magnolias = Texas Summer – Again, the tone’s okay, but it’s too vague; it doesn’t tell us anything about the characters or their conflict.
The Crucible = Witch Hunt – While still capturing the situation, this completely ignores the gravity of the plot.
That was kind of fun! Now you guys try—retitle a classic in the comments below and be as tacky or trite as you can!

One final dilemma—to use the title in the narrative or to… not do that? I know many authors like to insert a reference to their title within their work, but I’m not sure how to feel about that. George R. R. Martin has one of his characters actually say, “…you play the game of thrones,” to another character within his work. Sometimes it irritates me, but sometimes it’s cool.
Do you find  this tasteless, or clever?
Let me know, and happy writing!


What do you think? Tell me your opinions in a comment.

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