How To Find A Book Using A Plot Or Vague Description

You scrape your memory for something you can use in your search for a forgotten book title.

But what are the best details to use if all you’ve got is a vague description?

Fortunately for you, forgetting book titles is such a normal human thing that we’ve devised a number of clever ways to get around that. 

It might seem unlikely to find a book title by plot or description, but it can be done. 

The first step is to take an inventory of what you do remember. 

How Do You Find a Book When You Don’t Know the Title or Author? 

A book search by description might seem like a longshot, but it’s still a shot. And you might be surprised how effective the strategies in this post can be.

The real muscle behind these tools, though, is you. 

Without your memory and the time and energy you spend on the search, nothing happens.

Before you conduct your search, take some time to brainstorm a list of remembered details. Any of the following will come in handy:

  • Author name
  • Character names
  • Other books by the same author
  • Plot details (e.g., the Holocaust, PTSD, Redlining, etc.)
  • Memorable quotes, monologues, scenes, etc. 
  • Genre, subgenre, and tropes
  • Year or era of publication
  • When and why you read it (for school? For a summer reading program? For a book club?)

Once you’ve got your details listed and ready, try any of the five tips listed below for help in finding the title. 

5 Ways to Find a Book Using a Vague Description 

You’re here because you want to know how to find a book title by plot or find a book by description, using whatever details you can scrounge from your memory banks. 

The title is in there somewhere. And don’t be surprised if, at some point during your search, it comes to mind in bold print. Weirder things happen every day. 

But while you’re jogging your own memory, let’s see what other minds can do to help. 

Tip 1: Ask Your Social Network or Community

If you read the book for school or a book club or reading program hosted by someone in your community, chances are someone else has read the book, too. 

And if you found the book in your school library or the public library, there’s a chance someone else in your school or larger community has read it, too. In any case, it can’t hurt to ask around. 

Here are a few tips to help you in your investigation: 

  • Contact your school and, if possible, your teacher (by phone or email) with your question. Your teacher may or may not have kept a list of assigned reading for specific school years or classes. Provide as many details as you can remember. 
  • Contact the leader or another member of your book club or reading group to see if they can help. 
  • Contact your school librarian to see if they can search their own database using the details you provide. They may even remember the book based on your description.
  • Ask your parent/s or guardian if they can recall the title based on your description.
  • Ask a sibling or classmate who might have been assigned the same book in school. 

If you belong to any social media groups for the particular genre this book belongs to, post a question to see if any other members can recall the title based on what you remember. Or join such a group and ask around. 

If the book is still in print or likely to be available in digital form, there’s a good chance you’ll find it on Amazon. Start with the author name, if you have that, or use whatever you have on the main topic, plot, or other important details. 

Start your search in the “Books” or “Kindle Store” section, depending on whether this book is more likely to be available in print or in digital form (as a Kindle eBook). If your book is available in both formats, either search category will work. 

With nonfiction books, use any of the following in your search:

  • Author name
  • Names of other contributors (co-author, author of the foreword, illustrator)
  • Keywords from the title (if you remember any)
  • Keywords from the content (subject matter or key topics)

For fiction, you can try any of the following: 

  • Author name, with or without an additional keyword (e.g., “Agatha Christie and island” or “Ellis Peters and )
  • Name of a particular character, followed by the word “book” (e.g., “Bilbo Baggins book”) or followed by an important detail. 
  • Genre plus a keyword, which could be a key plot element or a distinctive place name (real or fictional) used in the novel’s setting (e.g., Gondor, Antarctica, Harlem). 

Notice we used the Boolean operator “and” to help us link two pieces of information together to narrow our search. Those come in handy for the next strategy, too. 

Use any of the following to help you in your search: 

Author Name — Even if that author has written scores of books, you can use other details to help with your search. For example, if the title you’ve forgotten is For Whom The Bell Tolls, try searching “Hemingway book about Spanish civil war.” 

Other Publishing Details — like the name of the publisher, keywords from a website mentioned in the book, or the name of another contributor, using phrases like “illustrated by <illustrator” or “foreword by <author of foreword>.” 

Keywords from the Title or Subtitle— If you remember any words from the title or subtitle, it could help. For example, what if all you remember are the words “history of racist ideas” from the subtitle? 

Plot Details or Subject Matter — use whatever details you remember — specific wars, innovations, triumphs, or tragedies, etc. — with a preference for those most likely to narrow your search. 

Book Cover Image — If all you remember about a book is the image on the cover, there’s a chance that detail will help you find it. For example, try searching “famous horror book cover with clown.” Just maybe don’t do this search after dark. 

Boolean Operators — “and,” “or,” “not,” or quotation marks — to make your search more specific. Google and other search engines will look for an exact match of anything you put inside quotation marks. 

Advanced Google Search or Advanced Book Search— to add details to your search or eliminate popular but unhelpful specific keywords. 

Try any of the following tools invented by readers like yourself, all of whom know the value of finding real help tracking down forgotten book titles. You’re in brilliant company: 

Reddit’s Tip of My Tongue, What’s That Book, Books, and PrintSF are all helpful forums with book sleuths who may know exactly where to look to help you solve the mystery. 

Tumblr is another place to find helpful book sleuths, particularly for those that have a large following (i.e., fandom). Click on “What’s trending” if you want to search without creating a Tumblr account. Then just use the search field at the top of the page. 

Goodreads What’s the Name of That Book? group can help you find your book after you’ve exhausted other resources. 

Library Thing’s Name That Book can help you identify a forgotten novel. 

Stump the Bookseller is a blog run by an indie bookseller in Ohio. They charge $4 for help in locating and identifying lost books, particularly those written for children. 

Tip 5: Ask Your Librarian

Most public libraries have access to a vast database called NovelList that allows them to search for titles based on whatever details you can supply.

And depending on what you’re looking for, your local librarian may know just where to look for it. 

You’ve got to love books to love this job, after all. And who doesn’t love to solve a mystery?

Plus, since many library websites have a chat feature, you can tap your librarian for help wherever you happen to be, whether that’s working from home or relaxing for a moment at your favorite coffee shop. 

So, if running out the door isn’t an option for you right now, you still have plenty of options for getting answers. 

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Final Thoughts

Now that you know five effective strategies for finding a book using a plot or vague description, which will you try first? Or which haven’t you tried yet? 

If you’ve exhausted your options and you’re ready to try anything, don’t overlook the power of your subconscious memory.

Go to sleep, asking yourself what the title is for the book on your mind, and picture whatever details you can as you drift off. 

The title may come to you before the alarm wakes you, so keep a notebook handy. And keep your mind open.

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