by John M. Floyd
Let me ask all you crime-fiction readers a question: What first attracts you to a story or a novel, if you know nothing about it beforehand? Its author? Its length? Its cover (or, if it’s a short piece, its illustration)? The fact that, when you flip through the pages, it has a lot of dialogue?
Any of those are valid reasons. Or you might be one of those people who just pick a novel at random, or start with the first story in a collection or an anthology simply because it’s the first story. But I would guess that most of you would say, “None of the above.” I bet you would say instead that the thing that first draws you to a story or a book is . . . its title.
Publishers all seem to agree on the importance of a title. It’s sort of like the opening paragraph — it better be interesting, or at least grab your attention. Otherwise, the novel with that title might never be selected off the store’s shelf, or the short story never chosen out of a lineup in a magazine or book. And for a writer, it’s important on a personal level: It’s the thing that most represents your story to the rest of the world, the one thing readers will always mention when talking about it to others.
But what makes a good title? Here are a few rules of thumb:
(1) Titles should, when possible, be memorable: Gone With the Wind, The High and the Mighty, Watership Down, “The Tin Star”, From Here to Eternity, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
(2) Titles should “fit” the story: The Caine Mutiny, “A Rose for Emily”, The Amityville Horror, Raise the Titanic, The Firm, Love Story, The Graduate.
(3) Titles should be pronounceable: Robert Ludlum’s The Wolfsschanze Covenant, was changed (thank God) to The Holcroft Covenant.
(4) Titles can be a play on words: Burglars Can Be Choosers, Florence of Arabia, Live and Let Die, A Hearse of a Different Color, Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man.
(5) Titles can point to a hidden meaning, later revealed: The Green Mile, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Cool Hand Luke, Dances With Wolves, The Shipping News.
(6) Titles can be a trademark for a certain author, or series: Janet Evanovich (numbers), Sue Grafton (ABC’s), John Sandford (the word “prey”), John D. MacDonald (colors), James Michener (one-word titles), Robert Ludlum (three-word titles), James Patterson (nursery rhymes).
(7) Titles can be people’s names: Carrie, Forrest Gump, Hondo, Goldfinger, Rebecca, Lolita, Shane, Delores Claiborne, Doctor Zhivago.
(8) Titles can be place names: Cold Mountain, Jurassic Park, Lonesome Dove, Mystic River, Peyton Place, Cannery Row, Plum Island, Cimarron.
(9) Titles can be possessives: Sophie’s Choice, Prizzi’s Honor, Portnoy’s Complaint, Charlotte’s Web, Angela’s Ashes, “Schindler’s List”, The Optimist’s Daughter.
(10) If long titles, they should have a “rhythm”: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, “The Sins of Rachel Cade”, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”
(11) Titles can be an “ing” phrase: “Romancing the Stone”, “Finding Nemo”, Waiting to Exhale, “Riding the Bullet”, Pleading Guilty, “Educating Rita”, “Raising Arizona.”
(12) Titles can be popular expressions: Gone for Good, “The Usual Suspects”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, Good As Gold, “The Whole Nine Yards.”
(13) Titles can come from existing works, like the Bible or Shakespeare: “The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, The Dogs of War, Lie Down With Lions, “All That Glitters.”
(14) Finally, if appropriate, titles can be simple: Jaws, Shogun, The Stand, Airport, Roots, Deliverance, The Searchers, Centennial, The Godfather.
More info than you needed, right? But for us authors who procrastinate — who sometimes finish writing a story or novel before we’ve come up with a name for it — pointers like this might at least trigger an idea or two.
By the way . . . here are some titles by the great Ed Hoch, whose passing last week saddened a legion of writers and readers:
“The Kindergarten Witch”
“The Perfect Time for the Perfect Crime”
“The Spy and the Nile Mermaid”
“Loaves and Fishes”
“Now You See It”
“A Busload of Bats”
“The Theft of the Banker’s Ashtray”
“Finding Joe Finch”
“The Gypsy’s Paw”
“One Bag of Coconuts”
“The Problem of the Tin Goose”
“Vulture in the Mist”
That’s the way the Master did it.