Guest Post by Sinead MacDughlas – “Where Do Your Titles Come From?”

Where Do Your Titles Come From?


Sinead MacDughlas



It’s a question interviewers often ask. I should have an easy answer ready, but I don’t. My inner smart-aleck wants to say, “Well, when an author and a story really, really love each other…”

The truth is, titles are tricky. I’ve found no definitive method for generating the perfect title. Now, I’ve never claimed to be an expert on the craft of writing, and I doubt I ever will. The best I can do is share my meager experience, and hope someone finds something useful in it.

Here is my take on titles:

The Spontaneous Title aka EUREKA!

This is the title that jumps into my brain whole-cloth, out of nowhere. There I am, typing away at a concept, or doing dishes, or chatting with a friend, and EUREKA! the perfect title just pops into my head. (Honestly, this usually happens just as I’m falling asleep, forcing me to crawl out of bed and write it down.) The Spontaneous Title is most often followed by gut-wrenching self-doubt, a flurry of Googling to ensure it hasn’t been used to death, a flash of disbelief, and finally a Snoopy-like happy dance.

The Unscheduled Stops was a Spontaneous Title. The introduction to the book explains the history better, but here’s the thought process: I wrote all of the short stories in The Unscheduled Stops when I was suffering writer’s block on my debut novel, Learn To Love Me. The novel was my planned project. The shorts weren’t. So on the “journey to authorship”, the short stories were unscheduled stops, and EUREKA! a title was born!

The Lost & Found Title

The Spontaneous Title that almost got away. It’s that EUREKA! moment I delude myself into believing that I’d remember in the morning. No need to get out of my cozy bed and write it down.

Given the Moon is a Lost and Found title. I haven’t finished writing the book, but the title started a conga-line through my groggy brain one night, just as I was finally getting to sleep. I was too exhausted to write it down. Of course, I woke up the next morning with the elation of having the perfect title, only to realize I’d forgotten the phrasing. Lucky me, I remembered a week later!

The Stalker Title

No matter how hard I try to think of something else to name my WIP, (work in progress), I keep coming back to the same working title I’ve had all along.

Learn To Love Me is a Stalker Title. I first wrote that title in 2003, when I wrote the prologue for what was to be a short story. It was a women’s lit. about a coming to terms with relationship failures, and eventual failure at marriage. Yes, it was a fictional memoir, based loosely on my own life. When I rediscovered the prologue in 2010, I wanted to expand it to a full-length book, and since the title fit the new theme of learning to love oneself, I kept it. When I changed the entire theme of the book to a purely fictional mystery, I tried to change the title, but it wouldn’t go away. Here comes a confession: don’t tell anyone, but the words “learn to love me” were never intended to be in the final mystery/thriller novel. I had to work them into the story to make the title fit. See? Now every time you see that line in the story, you’ll know that I crammed it in there because I was too dense to think of a better title.

The Twisted Title

This requires another confession: I secretly love cliches. My experience in advertising tells me that a cleverly wrought play on words, especially cliche phrases, will grab the attention of an audience. Best Served Bloody is a perfect example of me molding a cliche into a title. The story is about attempted redemption twisted by revenge. “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, right? So, the reader immediately gets the suggestion of revenge from the phrase “best served bloody”, I get a title just unique enough to avoid the cliche and fit the story. Sneaky, huh?

The Inspirational Title

Rather than being composed during or after the writing process, this rarity actually inspires the story. “A Startling Character” is a short story I wrote to submit to a writing contest. The entry required two elements; writing, and a cafe or coffee shop. I’ve often employed coffee shops to observe people and create characters based on my observations. With the title already in mind, I wrote the story to suit. The story is now in The Unscheduled Stops, having failed to impress the contest judges, but oddly enough a favourite of many readers.

The Content Title aka “I’m Brilliant!”

This title comes from a sentence within the narrative, or dialogue, that the writer is especially proud of. It is most often a micro-excerpt of a sentence taken directly from the book that sums up the novel, or emphasizes a key plot device. I would find this title during editing or proofing, as a bit of wording that sounds surprisingly brilliant.

“Which title is this one, lady?” you ask. None. I have yet to be stunned by my own “brilliance”.

The Concession Title aka The Working Title

The story is complete, or nearly so, and I’m still at a loss. It’s enough to make me crazier than I already am. Without a title, any WIP is in limbo. The edited copy will sit on file, taunting me. Every time I see the slap-dash title I’ve given it, I want to beat my head against a wall. The working title is often the name of the m/c, (main character), or an uber-simplified description of the topic.

I’ll read the story repeatedly, trying to eke out something brilliant, often resulting in no more than a pending migraine. “Moving On” from The Unscheduled Stops, was published with a Concession Title. It’s exactly what the story is about, but I still cringe whenever I read it.

With monumental effort, and lots of luck, a Concession Title can become…

The Tooth and Nail Title

 I only achieve this title after I’ve exhausted every other process. I sweat, bleed, research, and rewrite until I finally create something acceptable. Circul de Moarte, a Novella I’m polishing, is a good example. I began with the environment of the story, researched the historical origins, got lost in reams of conjecture and opinion, and resorted to “eenie meenie miney mo”. Then I added a plot device to make a working title, and translated it into the winning “language of origin”, (Romanian).

That is the sum of my title writing experience. If it helps anyone, or makes them feel better about their battles, I’m thrilled! Just PLEASE don’t ask me to help anyone write their title. I’m so far from an expert, I’d likely make both of us crazy(er) trying.

Are you a writer? Do any of these types of titles sound familiar, or do you have one I’ve missed? I’d love to hear your additions or suggestions! Readers, how important is a title to you, when choosing something to read?

-For more on Sinead and her work, follow these links-

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  1. A smart title is essential but I’ve seen shocking titles with a lot less substance that captivated the audience….so I suppose it should be a compromise between the two. Kisses Sinead :).

  2. Nice post! I definitely have trouble with titles.. Either I get a title but actually have NO story for it, and desperately write one whilst trying to make it fit, or I have a semblance of a story and no idea of what title to use.. 😀

    • You are not alone! There is such pressure attached to titles. In a library catalogue or a list of books, the title is often your one chance to grab the reader! If you try to create a title that gives a sense of the story, it’s like writing a synopsis of your synopsis. Sometimes, just the thought of creating a title can give me a panic attack.

  3. Very true, Petronela. I forgot about the Shock title. Perhaps because I have yet to use one. 😉 They can be very effective.

  4. I love twisted cliches as well, that’s what “Make Love Not Warts” is all about. Great interview! I love the “happy snoopy dance”, great visual! And yes, I’ve crawled out of bed or thought of that perfect title, premise, promo idea or tag line to a joke right before I fell asleep many times.

    • That’s a great twist, Brian! Got my attention! Now, if only we could write in our sleep. 😉

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