So, here’s a new thought about long story titles
by Rob Lopresti
Recently I read a story by Peter Turnbull in the March/April issue of EQMM. The title is “The Man Who Took his Hat Off to the Driver of the Train.” It was an interesting piece but I’m mostly concerned with the title. There are two things to notice about it.
One, and this probably occurred to you already, is that it is very long. The other is less obvious, although I’m sure that at least John, our poet in residence, has already spotted. For anyone who hasn’t, let me rewrite the title.
The MAN who took his HAT off to the DRIVer of the TRAIN.
It scans. It is basically three paeonic feet, with one extra syllable each at the beginning and the end (and you will be relieved to know that’s the last time I will throw that type of jargon at you). You can even make an argument that the rhythm sounds like a train, or at least the sound of an old-fashioned choo-choo that people my age carry in our heads.
But I would like to argue that if you are dreaming up a title of more than, say, six syllables, you might want to ask yourself: does it scan? Which means: does it sound well? Does it roll off the tongue? Let’s take a few examples out for a test drive.
Sing a song of murder
First of all, there is a category of titles that tend to scan pretty well because they are, or are based on, lines from songs or poems. Here are a few:
At Some Disputed Barricade — Anne Perry
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side — Agatha Christie
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — John LeCarre
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes — Lawrence Block
It don’t mean a thing if it don’t got that swing
Here are some titles that, to my ear, scan well. Keep in mind, an extra syllable or end at the beginning doesn’t count.
The Ape That Guards The Balance — Elizabeth Peters
The Cat Who Went Into The Closet — Lilian Jackson Braun
The Defection of A.J. LeWinter — Robert Littell
Don’t Turn Your Back On The Ocean — Janet Dawson
A Drink Before The War — Dennis Lehane
Harvard Has A Homicide — Timothy Fuller
I Know a Trick Worth Two of That — Samuel Holt
Inspector Ghote Hunts The Peacock — H.R.F. Keating
Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death — Jo Dereske
Murder at Five Finger Light — Sue Henry
Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie
Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home — Harry Kemelman
Time For the Death of a King — Ann Dukthas
The Tragedy at Tiverton — Raymond Paul
Don’t got that swing
And here are some examples of what I am suggesting you avoid.
The Assassination of Mozart — David Weiss
Death in the Fifth Position — Edgar Box
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead — James Lee Burke
Murder at the Museum of Natural History — Michael Jahn
Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry — Harry Kemelman
The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog — Elizabeth Peters
And so, all you authors out there, I have provided you a brand new thing to worry about. You’re welcome.