Have you noticed that we seldom find a subtitle on a novel? It seems that subtitles belong to the realm of non-fiction—and what a gift someone gave us when he or she invented subtitles. (A subtitle follows a title, and the two are separated by a colon.)
Your memoir’s subtitle can help accomplish your title’s goals, which are to:
- establish a distinct identity for your memoir,
- catch potential readers’ attention,
- entice them to buy your book,
- and read it when they get home,
- and recommend it to their friends.
A subtitle explains—illuminates, sheds light on—a book’s title.
A good subtitle elaborates on a title and:
- tells potential readers how your book is different from all others,
- hints at what a reader will find within the book,
- expands, explains, and entices,
- and might allude to secrets within.
Look at these titles without their subtitles:
A Long Way Gone
Did they intrigue you and make you want to buy them? Do you have a good idea what they’re about? Probably not.
Now look at them with their subtitles, below, and notice how much more they reveal the book’s contents:
What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love, by Carole Radziwill
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah
Thin Places: A Memoir, by Mary DeMuth
Thirteen Days: AMemoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Robert F. Kennedy
Falling Awake: An America Woman Gets a Grip on the Whole Changing World One Essay at a Time, by Mary Lou Sanelli
Review the goals of a title (bulleted above). Do the subtitles help accomplish those goals? I say yes. How about you?
How long or short should a subtitle be? Mary DeMuth’s subtitle is two words, “A Memoir.” Mary Lou Sanelli’s is a whopping 16 words long. I’m not aware of “rules” for how long or short a good subtitle should be, but avoid unnecessary wordiness.
Here are tips for crafting a strong title/subtitle:
- Choose an easy-to-understand title.
- Choose an easy-to-pronounce title.
- Choose an easy-to-remember title.
- Consider the benefits of a short, crisp title.
- Witty can be good—if it really works.
- Even if your title isn’t short, be concise: Make sure every word needs to be there.
- Beta readers (or others who have helped with your manuscript) might suggest titles. Brainstorm with them.
- Read your title aloud. How does it sound? (See last Thursday’s blog post on the art part of crafting titles.)
- Choose a title that feels just right to you—because it will stick with you for a long time!
Take a few minutes to read Susan Kendrick’s blog post, “What Makes a Good Subtitle and How Long Should it Be?” It’s packed with helpful info.
Keep in mind that if a traditional publishing house will publish your memoir, a lot of people there will have a say in your memoir’s title.
On the other hand, if you self-publish, or if you make only a few copies at the office supply store for family and friends, you get to choose your title.
Either way, work hard to create an excellent title.