Resist the Urge to Explain Your Title

For fiction writers, there is an important self-editing technique called RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). The problem occurs when an author overwrites a scene and explains every thought, movement, etc., or fails to allow the reader to fill in the details, thereby ruining the reading experience. The concept is described extremely well in Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Today, I’d like to look at it a little differently and apply the phrase “Resist the Urge to Explain” to the title you’ve created for your book.

Too many times an author will come up with a great idea but uses a title that has to be explained. I firmly believe that if you have to explain what your book is, few are patient enough to “listen” and will click to the next book online or their eyes will flit to the next book on the shelf.

I am frequently confronted by this problem in pitches and book proposals. At a conference appointment, someone may verbally pitch their book and I just don’t get it. The writer then spends a minute or more explaining the concept to me. My reply is, “Ah, I get it now. But you can’t make that explanation with every potential buyer online or in a store. You cannot physically do that. It needs a better title.”

Let’s use some goofy examples (these are not real pitches but ones I’ve made up on the spot):

You’ve written a book on personal finance. But the title is Gimme Sum Money. What does that mean? The title does mention money but uses the word sum instead of some. Why? The author might say, “Because it is a clever play on words and will get the reader to stop and explore.” Maybe. But more likely they will walk right past it. (It also doesn’t pass the “radio test” where the title would be misspelled if first heard on the radio.) A better title would be How to Keep the Money You Make.

Another example in fiction. The novel is a romance, and the title is Pillowsoft. Okay. But is that a brand name for a new pillow? Is it a metaphor for romance? Is it the name of a town? The title has to be explained. The reader may just walk right past it. A better title would be In Love’s Embrace. (Granted, that suggested title is rather weak; but you get my point.) Fiction will often have a nebulous title as part of its allure. However, some authors can go too far with their fiction titles and make them sound like nonfiction treatises.

Not every title has to be overly descriptive. For fun, let’s list a few below. Think how the content of the book is well expressed by the title:
Mere Christianity
The Purpose Driven Life
The Compact Guide to World Religions
Jesus Calling

The Five Love Languages
How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious
The Perfect Catch: Lessons for Life from a Bass Fisherman
The Forgotten Trinity

Put another way, when was the last time you bought a book solely on the power of the title? The title got your attention somehow. And then you spent a few seconds reading the back cover copy. Then you bought the book. The title promised you something: advice, entertainment, information, or inspiration.

In case you wonder, this is an ongoing discussion in every publishing house. The detective novelist Raymond Chandler famously wrote his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, “I am trying to think up a good title for you to want me to change.”

Below is an interesting list of famous novels that had their titles changed by the publisher:

Original Working Title Published Title
Leviathan Rising Jaws
It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet All Things Bright and Beautiful
First Impressions Pride and Prejudice
Before This Anger Roots
Trimalchio in West Egg The Great Gatsby
The Whale Moby Dick
Tomorrow is Another Day Gone with the Wind
Sea Cook Treasure Island
All’s Well That Ends Well War and Peace

 

34 Responses to Resist the Urge to Explain Your Title

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 4, 2019 at 7:28 am #

    If we but follow Mary
    Poppins, “I never explain
    anything,”, we may’nt tarry
    in the mire, and thus complain
    that we’ve turned all away
    in an overdose of words.
    May we hark back to the day
    when another Mary was stirred
    by a soul that took her heart
    and stilled her need to speak;
    she surely got the better part
    in the silence of the meek,
    for when exposition becomes duty
    it may stand in place of beauty.

    • Avatar
      Shirlee Abbott February 11, 2019 at 3:32 am #

      “An overdose of words.” That phrase speaks to my soul, Andrew., describing our culture. So many words, so little truth!

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray February 11, 2019 at 6:21 am #

      That was amazingly well stated Andrew. Thank you for sharing that.

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield February 11, 2019 at 12:00 pm #

      I love your sonnets, Andrew.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Brown February 13, 2019 at 7:43 pm #

      i haven’t thought of a name for my book yet. i only have the middle of the story and i think it might be a good story. its a story for children. i don’t do computers real good. but i am managing this. do you have anything to help? barbara brown

  2. Avatar
    Lorne Anderson February 11, 2019 at 6:42 am #

    I own a copy of “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet.” You must have a later edition. No, wait, they changed it for the US audience, didn’t they? Because “vet” means a different thing in the USA.

  3. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver February 11, 2019 at 6:55 am #

    Nice poem, Andrew. And, in light of Steve’s post, I’m re-thinking the title I had given my fiction book.

  4. Avatar
    Nancy E Massand February 11, 2019 at 7:34 am #

    Actually I think Before This Anger is a stunning title and tells the compelling story in just three words. Powerful. But I can see why Roots is a better sell in the mass media. Lesson learned.

  5. Avatar
    Linnea February 11, 2019 at 7:40 am #

    Titles are hard and I played around with a few before landing on an audience-tested choice for my current WIP. Set in ancient Babylon, the title is “House of the Embalmer”. The story opens with the discovery of an ancient embalming chamber at Babylon’s archaeological site, it figures throughout the book, and the climax of the novel takes place there as well.

    My biggest pet peeve is fiction titles that tantalize but don’t deliver on the content they promise.

  6. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell February 11, 2019 at 7:45 am #

    All Things Bright and Beautiful could be used in more than one genre. Regardless of what Vet means to the writer, I think the first title explained what the story was about more than the second, although I’ve never read the book.

    Moby Dick doesn’t really tell us anything, although The Whale seems rather blah. We know the title is about a particular whale only because it’s a classic story now.

    I’m sorry, but I think this is overthinking the choice of a title. Personally, I like to find a title that is somewhere repeated in my story, or at least comes close to being repeated word for word. And the best solution for picking a title to a story for me is to pray about it. When I get peace on a title, that’s what it becomes.

  7. Avatar
    Maco Stewart February 11, 2019 at 7:48 am #

    Steve, thanks for the list of before and after titles. Fascinating.

  8. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage February 11, 2019 at 7:58 am #

    It is really difficult to pick a title that sounds intriguing or catchy without beint overly obscure AND that somehow gives a flavor of the book. AND that hasn’t already been used by some other book!

    It’s even harder for authors, who have just spent a year or more immersed in the details, symbolism, and double meanings of our novel, and who LOVE to explain.

  9. Avatar
    Bryan February 11, 2019 at 8:14 am #

    Thanks for the insight. Titles bind stories and if it’s not tight, the whole thing could unravel. A great story shouldn’t be wrapped haphazardly with a loose title. A good, strong title shows great care by its author.

  10. Avatar
    Regina Merrick February 11, 2019 at 9:36 am #

    This was helpful. I had tentatively titled my current WIP, a novella, something that would not pass the “radio test!” Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan February 11, 2019 at 11:06 am #

    Hi all –

    great responses and I have had the same issues. My first pointed to a romance though it embodies crime. However, it had a catchy title. My second is a noir with a vague title. My third, oh, boy! An agent suggested the truth, that folks in this era would not know what my title meant.

    Each title I go through (occasionally) a random title generator and take something from one to another. Sometimes it works, even if it’s a placeholder for WIP, which never seems to inspire me.

  12. Avatar
    Steve Laube February 11, 2019 at 11:12 am #

    Great comments everyone!

    To mess with everyone’s mind, think about this…

    We will respond positively to a weak title IF it is accompanied by a dynamic cover design. We all do it. We react to the visual. The design is first, the title is second, the content is third. We all buy things that way.

    The problem with that is your proposal doesn’t have a cover (and please don’t try. Those often make things worse). And your proposal goes into a publishing company to its editor, sales, and marketing people without a cover. It has to sell on the concept, the writing, the platform, and the title….but titles can be changed.

    • Avatar
      Linnea February 11, 2019 at 11:43 am #

      Absolutely, Steve. My first novel was set during the black plague and the cover art was quite grim. As it turned out, my publisher marketed the novel primarily to older teens and they found the cover off-putting. Fortunately they read it anyway yet I know I could have done more to persuade my publisher to consider my own idea for the cover art. In hindsight, it would have been better accepted by the young readers. But I was a newbie and didn’t think my input would be appreciated.

  13. Avatar
    Carol Ashby February 11, 2019 at 11:29 am #

    Good points, Steve. Titles are tricky, and what seems like an obviously good title might not be when you consider your wider audience.

    My second novel was going to be entitled “Love Triangle” because the heroine faces the choice of denying Jesus or giving up the man she loves. But my betas said that sounded too much like a romance (it’s historical), and I had just learned from the sales of my first novel that these Roman-era stories appealed strongly to men as well as women. Romance title = kiss the potential male readers goodbye. So I switched the title to Blind Ambition, which captured the essence of the man’s core problem, and put it with a tagline “Sometimes you have to almost die to discover how you want to live.”

    When you’re indie, you need to tap into the collective wisdom of your beta readers and a range of friends to lock in a title that should work for all your readers. But the same applies when picking a possible title to enter a contest or to present to agents and editors.

  14. Avatar
    Karen Meyer February 11, 2019 at 1:05 pm #

    My WIP has Christian content but will be marketed to the general public, both men and women. It’s historical fiction. The title has WHISKEY in it; does that turn off Christians?
    (Whiskey War; Westerville vs the Corbins).

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 11, 2019 at 1:13 pm #

      Karen,

      Your title “Whiskey War; Westerville vs the Corbins” sounds like a documentary or a regional history.

      Or maybe that isn’t the title.

      The “Whisky War” could be in your description so it becomes searchable online.

      Maybe consider a title like:
      A DRY SUMMER
      or
      A DRY WINTER IN WESTERVILLE

      Westerville, OH was the center of the 1875-79 Whisky Wars.
      https://blog.herrealtors.com/post/the-history-of-prohibition-rooted-in-westerville-ohio

      • Avatar
        Karen Meyer February 11, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

        Yes, Whiskey War: Westerville vs the Corbins, is the title. It is the story of the town’s history in 1875-79, but has a fictional young hero with a love interest whose story is interwoven with the Corbins. I don’t even hint at that in my title, but maybe I should?

  15. Avatar
    Karen Meyer February 11, 2019 at 1:29 pm #

    Yes, Whiskey War: Westerville vs the Corbins, is the title. It is the story of the town’s history in 1875-79, but has a fictional young hero with a love interest whose story is interwoven with the Corbins. I don’t even hint at that in my title, but maybe I should?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 11, 2019 at 1:31 pm #

      Karen,

      That is a non-fiction title. Not fiction.

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield February 11, 2019 at 3:16 pm #

      Karen,
      I totally agree with Steve. I would assume that a book entitled Whiskey War: Westerville vs the Corbins was non-fiction. If you write fiction, even historical fiction with a high level of contextual accuracy (as I do, too), the history is still just the setting for the story. Your title needs to reflect your story. I like Steve’s suggestions, especially the “Dry” play on words and the alliteration of the W’s, but of course, they wouldn’t work if they don’t fit the story.

      One of my favorite titles is for the non-fiction story of a wild murder mystery that took place in 1912 near where I live now, written by my friend, Beth Lane: Lies Told Under Oath. Doesn’t that title just make you grin and want to read it? ;-D

  16. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 11, 2019 at 2:35 pm #

    Steve, I loved the examples you gave us- that helped me envision exactly what I think you meant.

    • Avatar
      Karen Meyer February 11, 2019 at 7:54 pm #

      Thanks for advice re my fiction title that sounds like a non-fiction one.
      A title better deliver what it promises, right?
      The actual history takes up about one third of the words, so my title should bring in the fictional character’s story. That will take lots of thought; maybe I’ll try out a few in this comment thread.

      • Avatar
        Karen Meyer February 12, 2019 at 8:52 am #

        Here are the titles I’ve come up with that sound more fiction-like.

        Gilbert’s Dilemma, a Tale of Temperance Times

        The Dry Town’s Revenge

  17. Avatar
    Joey Rudder February 11, 2019 at 3:42 pm #

    This is so interesting. Thanks, Steve. As I’m working on a title for my WIP, this has me wondering if I’m going about it all wrong.

    I’ve been choosing my titles from actual objects, something tangible; they cover the theme and are actual objects in the book. I try to keep the titles down to two or three words and try to give publishers a clear image they can work with.

    An example from my very first (and awful!) book that no one will ever see: Butterfly Wings. It’s a story about personal growth and the protagonist receives a butterfly necklace at the end of her journey. (Yikes. I felt the need to explain that.) Do you think a better title might be something geared toward the theme instead of the object (which revolves around the theme)? In this case, maybe something like “Journey to Flight” or “Growing into Me”…not sure I like either one of those! 🙂

    Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  18. Avatar
    Sheila February 11, 2019 at 4:48 pm #

    Excellent article!

    My WIP title is The Scent of Truffles. It is a YA speculative novel about a young bunny who comes to realize that her life choices negatively affect others.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 11, 2019 at 4:54 pm #

      Sheila,

      The title is fine…if one things that the smell of fungi (which truffles are…a type of mushroom) is something we would want to smell. 🙂

      YA novels with animals as the main characters are rarely successful. There are exceptions, because they are the exceptions.

      Also rabbits don’t each mushrooms, or shouldn’t:
      https://squeaksandnibbles.com/can-rabbits-eat-mushrooms/

      Therefore the story premise is going to meet some challenges when you juxtapose rabbits and truffles.

      Something to consider before pitching the story.

  19. Avatar
    Judy Gordon Morrow February 11, 2019 at 10:20 pm #

    Great post, Steve! Reminds me of when I served on the titling committee when I worked at Multnomah Publishers. I loved brainstorming titles and still find it fun.

    Titles sometimes come to me when I’m in prayer or reading my Bible. A prime example is the book proposal I’m working on now: Keeping the Sing in Single. Funny, but I had never noticed the word “sing” in single until that day on my knees. I’m thankful for all the times I’ve heard “I love that title!” and for all the authors willing to contribute their writings. I welcome your wise thoughts.

    I look forward to seeing you again at Mount Hermon in April. What a joy to serve on faculty and lead the prayer team again. When combing through conference photos I found one I took of you with some mutual author friends, but I failed to label what year it was in the ’90s. Where do the years go?! And this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary–amazing!

  20. Avatar
    Daphne Woodall February 12, 2019 at 7:13 am #

    Love the discussion and your examples. I had a working title just because I read publishers generally change author titles. I’m honored that you changed my title during an agent appointment at conference. Look forward to seeing you at BRMCWC. Hope you do another Keynote Speech!

  21. Avatar
    Natalie Hidalgo February 20, 2019 at 7:28 pm #

    Thanks this is good advice. I enjoy reading all the comments here. My WIP title is Calling all Zombies. A YA novel set with human, demon and angel characters. It must be hard to trust the editor and change a title that a writer has been using for years while working.

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