22 November 2013

Playing With Titles

by R.T. Lawton

Writing can be fun when you play with the words, especially when you put layers of different meanings into those words. Take for instance, the title for a story. Those few words give the reader a certain expectation as to what the story is about, and maybe what type of situation the protagonist will find himself or herself in. That title may even lead the reader to expect a certain ending.

But, it can be like when a comedian tells a clever joke. In this case, he frequently leads the audience down an expected path, and just when the audience is leaning a certain direction to go with the flow, the joke-teller reverses course and provides an unexpected punch line. The words of the punch line still fit the body of the joke, however the audience gets a surprise and ends up laughing at how they were fooled.

In my Holiday Burglars series in AHMM, I like to play with the wording in some of my titles. The first story in this particular series was "Click, Click, Click." It's about two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, who are in the process of breaking into the house of an ex-con. This ex-con hides his money and drugs inside wrapped Christmas packages placed under a decorated Christmas tree. Naturally, the title words are lifted from a song that goes something like this: "Up on the roof top, click, click, click, down through the chimney comes old Saint Nick..."

Yarnell and Beaumont however, cut the glass on a back door to make their entry instead of coming down the chimney. And, since they counted the number of houses from the rear instead of from the front of the block, they inadvertently break into a house belonging to an upstanding member of the National Rifle Association. The awakened home owner then steps into the living room unbeknownst to them with a loaded revolver in his hand. Now, the CLICK becomes the sound of a large hand gun being cocked as well as the song's sound of reindeer hooves up on the roof.

In "Grave Trouble," the definition of the word grave is assumed by the reader to mean serious. For this story, Yarnell and Beaumont are wearing Halloween masks to hide their identity from any security cameras while breaking into the basement of a jewelry store. But, because they left their tape measure behind, they are slightly off in their calculations conducted inside the storm drain and therefore end up in the basement of the funeral home next door, thus leading to the other meaning for grave.

For "Independence Day," which makes Americans think of the Fourth of July, Beaumont finds himself selected for jury duty. The case for trial is on a fellow burglar, one who owes money to Beaumont. Should Beaumont work to find the defendant guilty because of a prior double cross he committed, or should he try to set the burglar free so said burglar can pay the debt he owes?

And, my favorite, "Labor Day." By now, you have probably figured out where this one is going. Yarnell and Beaumont have burgled a top floor condo during the Labor Day weekend. As they descend, with their loot, in a rickety old elevator, people get on and off at various floors. After everyone else has gotten off, the last passenger still on, with our two burglars and their protege (The Thin Guy), is a pregnant lady. As they are about to have a safe getaway, the elevator manages to jam between floors and sure enough, the pregnant woman goes into labor. Someone has to deliver the baby while police and firemen are trying to open the elevator door. Oh yeah, a news crew is on scene waiting to interview the rescued occupants.

Anyway, I get a kick out of putting double meanings into some of these titles. Guess if I'm lucky, the reader will get some laughs out of these stories. And, if they go back and think about the wording in these titles, maybe they'll get a kick out of them, too.


  1. Inliked them all, especially Labr Day. You hacea screwy sense of humor, sr.

  2. Great titles! However, my first thought for Grave Troubles was an actual hole six feet deep.

  3. I've read each of those stories, R.T. and thought the titles worked very well. Excellent stories, too, by the by.

  4. I'm a bit envious of your titles- and seeming ease of inventing them. I find I either get a good story or a good title but rarely both together.

  5. I, too, envy your clever titles. My latest submission, a short story that takes place entirely on a walking path is imaginatively titled, "The Walking Path." Another dealing with a misunderstanding between neighbors is called...(wait for it)..."Neighbor." I'm thinking of hiring a "Title Consultant." Are you available, R.T.?

  6. Oh, how I hate having to come up with titles - once in a blue moon I can come up with something clever, but mostly mine are very prosaic, like "Death of a Good Man". Great article.

  7. I enjoyed this, R.T. Great column as usual.

    One of my alltime favorite titles is Ed McBain's Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man. Another favorite: Apocalypse Pretty Soon. Why can't I come up with things like that?

  8. R.T. Titles are interesting, in and of themselves. I struggle with them, often enough. In fact, I find I can't write the story without having a title---the title defines it, and gives it shape. You know?

  9. I'm in the opposite boat from David: I can almost never come up with a title until I'm at least a third of the way done with the work. Drives me crazy! LOL

    Your titles, and the stories they portend, are terrific, R.T. Really admire your wit!


  10. Thank you one and all. In response to several of you on titles and stories, I almost always start with a title while still on the first page of writing, because I think I know where that story is going, but that starting title could change up to four times before finding the final title, which actually fits better (or best).


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