Your Headline Needs to Tell a Story, and So Do Your Book Titles

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

You’ve read thousands of articles on the importance of getting your headlines just right. Book titles are just as important — a catchy title could be the difference between a bestseller and a flop.

Some of my best articles have the worst headlines and went nowhere, and a mediocre book I wrote in 2013 is a Platinum Bestseller, likely because the title is intriguing. If you’re looking to publish a book or write articles online, you need to master the art of writing great headlines.

What’s in a name

Everything has a name. If something doesn’t, we give it one. A single word can act as a mnemonic device for dozens of things. You need those mnemonic devices to remember details about a subject.

Here’s the cool thing: If you string words together in specific ways, you can access the memories of readers and funnel them into thinking a certain way, usually by leaving the thought unfinished, like when you lead toward an answer in such a way that a reader believes they came to the conclusion all on their own. Such tricks are essential to persuasive writing.

Names work the same way, except they are far more encompassing. If I asked you who Harry Potter is, you immediately get an entire encyclopedia worth of concepts you have linked to the name: fictional character, magic student, multi-billion dollar franchise…

Companies live and die on their branding

What is an automobile? Something that gets you from one place to another? Boring. How about this: what is a Corvette? A Lamborghini? A Hummer? ‘Automobile’ can be the answer to each of those questions, but the name is more specific than that.

A name is a brand. If you write online, then you are a brand — for better or worse. And when you write a book or an article, the title or headline you put on it becomes the branding for the ideas within it. I’m not saying that you should put as much thought into your article names as GMC puts into its next car model, but you should definitely put as much thought into it as you do the substance of the article.

Names carry emotion

When my second daughter was born, I had in mind to name her Keira. I liked the name because it brought about a pleasant emotion (I can’t tell you where from, it’s just something I picked up). Unfortunately, my wife had an emotional connection to the name, too: one of her childhood bullies was named Keira.

Now, we could have gone forward with naming our child Keira and created new memories and emotions for my wife to attach to the name, but we opted to go with something that was wholly positive for both of us.

Unless you are writing a persuasive article with the hope of changing minds about a subject (not an easy thing to do), you are going to want to pick something that conveys the emotion you’re looking for upfront. For instance, if you named an article: The Best President of the United States is…, you’re going to get drastically different emotional responses from readers if you call that president Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

Headlines convey meaning

Pretend you had never read or seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Just from the title, what you think it’s about? A boy named Harry and a unique stone. Given how the stone is described, the story probably has magic involved — there’s at least one sorcerer.

What if J.K. Rowling had named the book The Case of the Sorcerer’s Stone? That conveys a different meaning, doesn’t it? ‘Case’ suggests that someone is a detective or private investigator. Maybe the Sorcerer’s Stone was stolen. Is this a suspense novel? With a name like that, I would be disappointed if it all took place at a magic school.

And how about that magic school? What if, instead of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book was entitled Magic School and the Sorcerer’s Stone? The story needs a main character, to be sure, but it no longer has to be Harry. It could be a different student, a teacher, or even a group of main characters.

You can see how every word you include in your headline or book title is important. It can’t be something you just slapped together because you couldn’t wait to hit ‘Publish’ and get it out into the world. A good title tells a story, and if you want anyone to read the story underneath, you need to command the narrative of that title.

Headlines do not have to be unique

If a title needed to be unique, the show Supernatural never would have gone fifteen seasons. But would you really have watched it if the title was: Hot Guys Killing Monsters of the Week? That’s the imagery the real title brings to mind, but only after you’ve seen a trailer — the title is just a word.

Take the headline of this article: Your Headlines Need to Tell a Story. There’s not really anything unique about it. There are hundreds like it on the internet already. But ‘headline’ and ‘story’ in the same line — that’s an interesting combination.

Then take the subtitle: And so do book titles. That helps convey the idea that the article is going to talk about more than just the persuasive writing of article headlines. It also helps to narrow down the audience to authors of books.

Treat your titles like the pieces of art they are

Many viewers of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice were let down. To be sure, it had nothing to do with the title (that’s one epic title). But the movie could have been named so many things: (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, Batman/Superman: Misunderstandings, or even Justice League: The Legend of Martha (end spoilers).

The title they chose was artistically meaningful. It signifies a misunderstanding of two of our greatest heroes that is destined to become violent. It also suggests something that DC fans have been waiting for since the final minutes of Iron Man: a Justice League franchise.

Treat your titles with similar respect. What story is it telling? What emotion are you trying to convey? You can’t throw your hands up in the air and not know these answers.

What can happen just by changing the headline

You can’t do this with books that you’ve already published, but I once wrote a pretty great article that was rejected by the publication I sent it to. They couldn’t see the story and how it would work for their publication. That was BS because it was a business article for a business publication. Of course, it would work for the publication.

I took a hard look at that article and thought it was fine, but the title and subtitle could use some work. So I renamed it and changed the picture (I won’t get into images in this article, but they are worth a thousand words and those words tell as much of a story as a title) and then published it. An hour later, once it was curated on Medium, an editor for the publication that rejected the article commented on how they would love for me to submit it to them.

It’s often hard to see what a new title can do for your work after you publish it, except on specific platforms like Medium, but changing the title can turn a rejection into an acceptance. I would have saved a lot of time if I had thought about the title in the first place, and so can you.

I hope this helps you attract more readers. To get more no-nonsense publishing advice from a former publisher, signup for my newsletter.

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