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Sources of Ideas

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

In this lesson, you'll learn about several totally different ways to come up with appropriate ideas for titles apart from brainstorming words. The first is to look up sayings related to the theme or themes of your book. These might be quotations from famous people, clichés, nursery rhymes, folkloric sayings from your own culture or from around the world.

For example, the title Once Upon a Car, about the changing fortunes of America's big three automakers, is an obvious play on Once Upon a Time. Titles like this work on two levels. First, any play on words gets special attention from our brains. And second, when it's a well-chosen saying that you're playing off, the title can become especially evocative and memorable. Clearly, nostalgia and the past are important elements for the book Once Upon a Car.

Brainstorming sayings also includes jotting down things people say in the situations you're talking about. Think of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo – a title that was so popular it got turned into a movie. You see a phrase representing what people also say in Shouting Won't Help, a book about the psychological and social impact of hearing loss.

Other sources include characters from famous literary works, ancient mythology, fairy tales, lines from Shakespeare or the Bible, passages from well-known songs or poems. For example, William Faulkner's title The Sound and the Fury comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World likewise comes from Shakespeare, this time from The Tempest:

How beauteous mankind is!

O brave new world,

That has such people in it!

The Bible has provided phrases for hundreds if not thousands of book titles, including A Time to Kill, by John Grisham, All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, all three from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. By the way, if you are looking for evocative Biblical quotations, be sure to use the King James version of the Bible, because it deliberately uses language that is elevated and lofty, not the kind of phraseology we use in everyday life.

Classic poetry is another promising source. The first crime novel that JK Rowling wrote under the name Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling, takes its title from a poem by the nineteenth-century English pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti:

Why were you born when the snow was falling? You should have come to the cuckoo's calling.

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, as you probably know, comes from the Humpty Dumpty poem in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, comes from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats. Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem also comes from Yeats:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

And then there are songs. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami titled one of his novels Norwegian Wood, the name of a Beatles ballad from the album "Rubber Soul." "Norwegian Wood" was the favorite song of one of the characters in the novel, but more to the point, the novel takes place in Japan during the era of the Beatles and the late 1960s student protest movements.

Note that titles of songs, like titles of books, are not covered by copyright, but the lines within songs and poems published within the last 75 years or so usually are covered by copyright and require permission from the copyright holder before you can safely use them. Consult an intellectual property attorney to avoid legal problems in that regard.

Found phrases – things you just happen to overhear or see – are another source of titles. Edward Albee came across the title of his most famous play, later made into a movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in a Greenwich Village men's room. He saw "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap on a mirror. "When I started to write the play, it cropped up in my mind again," he says. "And of course, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions [the theme of the play]. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke." Keep your ears and eyes open.

The final source of title ideas I want to suggest is other book titles. What you'd be looking at is the pattern of words or ideas in the titles. I recommend you do this research relatively randomly in a bookstore or library. You can get terrific title ideas from books of quite a different type or on a very different topic. They could be old books or new books you're looking at, and here's how you do it.

Notice which book titles grab your attention and then analyze the pattern of words or ideas in the title. For instance, you see the business book The Big Short by Michael Lewis or Forks Over Knives, a book version of a documentary film on plant-based eating. Both of these titles involve bringing together opposite concepts or creating tension. So then you'd look to see what opposites or near-opposites you have in your brainstorm list and how you might put them in juxtaposition.

If you found yourself drawn to the book Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption, you could analyze it as three emotional words using alliteration (the repeated letter K), then "A Story of…" with two qualities, one of them modified in a curiosity-provoking way.

Similarly, if you were looking at Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, you would analyze it as a weird, provocative question, followed by a simple one-word summary of the topic and a grand philosophical phrase.

Through this kind of exploration, I guarantee you'll find patterns you would never have thought of on your own. In the next three lessons of the course, I illustrate the method with patterns for nonfiction, fiction, and book series.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin