Elizabeth Bear's How To Title Your Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel or Series: A Tutorial in Three Parts*
(*In which I make fun of my industry, myself, and all of my friends.)
Part the Oneth: STRUCTURING YOUR TITLE
There are a number of excellent titling strategies. For purposes of this column, we're going to ignore some of the strategies requiring a little more art and discretion, such as extracting a suitable bit of a quotation from something (A Fine and Private Place
), its ever-popular subset, making up a quote, sticking it in the book, and then quoting yourself (as in my own All the Windwracked Stars
), or just titling a story after the protagonist (Julian Comstock
) with or without suitable subtitles.
We're going to build these titles from whole cloth! Or whole noun phrases, anyway.
The simplest titling strategy is, of course, the single unadorned NOUN
. Usually one-syllable, for best impact and biggest title type, but not always: (Dawn. Dune. Dust. Skin. Sunshine. )
Can also be a PROPER NOUN
--the "Title the story after the protagonist" tactic above is a subset of this-- ("Galapagos.
" Alanna. Cyteen, Hyperion)
--in fairness, Sunshine, Dune,
are also proper nouns, but they have evocative meanings of their own--or a date (1984, 2312)
or even the ever-popular DEFINITE ARTICLE NOUN
(The Peripheral. The Chaos.).
Also fun, pick a FOREIGN NOUN!
There's also the COINED NOUN
appearing in all subforms, super popular in SFF if you can come up with a catchy word. (UBIK. Slan.
and there's the ever-popular SLIGHTLY TWEAKED NOUN
(or existing construction)
"The Narcomancer." Doomsday Book
If you come up with a good one of these, your friends will be jealous forever. Just so you know.
There's also the NOUN NOUN
, but since those usually read as ADJECTIVE NOUN
, they're dealt with below. Just find a noun that encompasses some thematic or descriptive aspect of your work, and go to town!
...But this is beginner stuff. We can do better than that.
NB: the one-word title often indicates science fiction, as opposed to fantasy. As does the next subset, the ADJECTIVE NOUN.
The ADJECTIVE NOUN
title comes in two subforms, of course: ADJECTIVE NOUN
proper and the slightly more common ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN.
This gets interesting, because I feel through entirely subjective anecdata that ADJECTIVE NOUN
usually indicates a genre book (Lady Knight, Conjure Wife, Blue Mars, Starship Troopers, Snow Crash, Lifelode, Updraft
) whereas DEFINITE ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN (The Broken Kingdoms. The Forever War, The Snow Queen, The Goblin Emperor, The Three-Body Problem, Ancillary Mercy, The Drowning City, The Invisible Man, The Fortunate Fall, The Illustrated Man, The Orphan Queen
) could go either way, and INDEFINITE ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN says literary novel to me. In fact, the only genre examples I can think of off the top of my head is A Swiftly Tilting Planet
, and that one throws in an adverb for good measure.
I'm sure there are more, but thinking about them is too far to go for a joke.
These work best if you can come up with some interesting tension in the name--two things that evoke an image, or seem in contradiction to one another, as in The Fortunate Fall
and The Orphan Queen
We're just going to conveniently ignore The Scarlet Letter
in this discussion.
This is one of the true classics of genre titling, by the way. In a statistic I just made up on the spot, I would estimate that 78.3% of genre books have some subvariant of the ADJECTIVE NOUN
construction. (You can also jazz it up by going NOUN ADJECTIVE, too (Man Plus. Girl, Interrupted.
I think Boneshaker
probably goes under NOUN
, but whatever. you get the idea.).
We also get some variants here--POSSESSIVE ADJECTIVE NOUN
(My Real Children
) and the ADJECTIVE NOUN'S NOUN
construction with variants (Ender's Game, The Wise Man's Fear, Old Man's War, Delia's Shadow
but the basic structure is the same, though they can be a little snappier because they impart a little more action and context.
Then there's a weirdo: the unadorned ADJECTIVE VERB FORM.
I think I might actually have started that one, with Hammered
, but now it's everywhere--including at least a couple of other Hammered
s, some Hunted
s, the odd Withered
... and so it goes. Trendy now, may sound dated in a decade. Or it may be one that sticks around.
They don't pay me to be a titling futurist. Except indirectly.
Oh wait, I take it back. Kindred.
That might be the ur-adjective. That one's not verb-derived, though, so it doesn't sound so weird when you think about it for too long. Possibly Octavia Butler was better at this than I am.
Which brings us to another NOUN VERB
(God Stalk, Leviathan Wakes, A Dead God Dancing
) and VERB NOUN
(Kill Bill, Steal This Book***
along with its subset GERUND NOUN
(Moving Mars, Towing Jehovah, Raising Steam)
***I can't think of any genre examples. Oh, wait, fadethecat
came up with Consider Phlebas
, which is also a quote, and I can't believe I forgot.
Next up, another real classic of the genre title: the ever popular NOUN & NOUN
! A serious classic of fantasy in particular. Does what it says on the box. (Blood & Iron. Rosemary and Rue. Cloud and Ashes. The Moon and the Sun.
We could be here all week.)
And now, the one you've all been waiting for--the real standard marker of heroic or epic fantasy. The dreaded and all too easy to mock THING PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE
title. This is totally J.R.R. Tolkien's fault, and there's no use pretending otherwise.The Name of the Wind
Ill-Met in Lankhmar
A Stranger in Olondria
A Companion to Wolves
Gun, with Occasional Music
Servant of the UnderworldWizard of the Pigeons
The Grace of Kings
The Lies of Locke Lamora
(extra credit for protagonist name)The Face in the Frost
Sometimes, for variety, just a prepositional phrase! By the Mountain Bound
And you can make a series sound unified--and endlessly confuse your readers when they try to remember which book is which--by taking two Common Fantasy Nouns, working them into a prepositional phrase, and changing only one of them per series installment. I think the first time I encountered this trick was the Janny Wurts/Ray Feist "Empire" books (Daughter of, Servant of, Mistress of,
if I remember, but I can never remember which order they come in. And I Liked them and read them more than once.)
Ahem. Anyway. Now that you have the constructions, you need some words to plug in. Feel free to use as many as you like. And convert them into adjectives or adverbs as needed.... for example, Blood to Bloody.
These are all great well-recognized Fantasy Nouns, and using them on a book cover will make sure that readers know what they're getting!Part the Twoth: HANDY WORD LISTS
ApprenticePart the Third: FUCKING TITLING TRENDS
The Noun's Female Relative
The Girl with the Prepositional Phrase
I'm bored with these. You can figure out how it works.Part the Bonuseth: CHANGING THINGS UP
And now, for extra credit, some titles that mix things up! See if you can figure out how these were done.Red Seas under Red SkiesBell Book and Candle
Who Fears Death
Set this House in OrderSearch the Seven Hills
Kitty and the Midnight Hour
Queen of Air and Darkness
Three Hearts and Three LionsStormqueen!
(Exclamation points are rarely a good idea in titles, and this one is no exception)THE NOUN WHO VERBED
(The Epithet Title): (The Man who Melted. The Woman who Rides Like a Man. The Man Who Wasn't There.
)SIMPLE DECLARATIVE SENTENCE: (John Dies at the End.)
Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
You can all go home now. I got nothing to top that.