04 November 2016

What's in a Title?

by O'Neil De Noux

What's in a title? Well, just about everything to a writer because the title's the first thing a reader sees after the cover image.

How many times have you asked yourself, "What was the name of that book?" It was Blood-something or Fatal-something or something that sounds like a lot of other books. You don't want your title easily forgotten. Make your title memorable.

Walker Percy said, "A good title should intrigue, without being too baffling or too obvious." He's right of course.

So where do we get our titles?

Within the story is one way. As we write our stories we sometimes create an excellent line that identifies our story completely. So while we write, look for a title. Some examples are Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" and C. L. Moore's "Shambleau." I did it it with THE BIG KISS, THE FRENCH DETECTIVE and HOLD ME, BABE.

Harlan Ellison                        James Lee Burke

Go to the BIBLE for titles or Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and other classics. These are rich resources and in the public domain. Examples are James Lee Burke's A STAINED WHITE RADIANCE from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES from MACBETH, John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  I got the title of my story "Cruelty the Human Heart" from THE DIVINE IMAGE by Williams Blake. That particular story is in the American Literature textbook used at the nine universities of the University of Louisiana system.

Sometimes a title can come from a story's theme. Some good examples are Lawrence Kasdan's brilliant screenplay BODY HEAT and the southern classics TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and GONE WITH THE WIND. I used theme to title my novel CITY OF SECRETS from the poem "Eternal Return" by James Sallis (used by permission).

A popular expression works or twisting a cliché around as Bill Pronzini did in "Cat's Paw" and John le Carré did in THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, as well as fellow New Orleans writer John Dillman's UNHOLY MATRIMONY. Poppy Z. Brite might have topped us all with ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT?

We can use emotive words related to death, murder and terror, like Stephen King's THE DEAD ZONE, Frederick Knott's DIAL M FOR MURDER and Mario Puzo's FOOLS DIE. I used it in "Murder at Suicide Oak" and GRIM REAPER.

A number in a title works, like John Buchan's THE 39 STEPS, Joseph Heller's CATCH 22 and Ray Bradbury again with FAHRENHEIT 451, as well as short stories like "69 Love Songs" by Maxim Jakubowski and "Cantata 140" by Philip K. Dick. I've used this more than once and sold stories entitled "26 Down," "General Order No. 28" and "21 Steps."

The name of a character can be a good title like Thomas Harris did with HANNIBAL and Vera Caspary's LAURA, Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA, Bram Stoker's DRACULA and don't forget the classic Robert Louis Stephenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." I used it in JOHN RAVEN BEAU and it gave the series a good launch as it drew readers to the character.

A story's setting is a good source for a title like Martin Cruz Smith's GORKY PARK, Robert Towne's CHINATOWN, Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE, as well as Cornell Wollrich's wonderful story, adapted into a Hitchcock classic, "Rear Window."

Complex titles, both cited here are related to theme, attracted immediate attention to the stories - "The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth" by Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison's Edgar Award winning "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs."

Colors work in a title as in Edgar Allan Poe's masterful "The Masque of the Red Death," Edward D. Hoch's "The Golden Nugget Poker Game," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Red-Headed League." Dashiell Hammett used it in RED HARVEST and Raymond Chandler in THE BLUE DAHLIA. I've used colors in several titles - BLUE ORLEANS, NUDE IN RED and "The Purple Side of Blue."

Animals in a title can work, as in Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON, Poe's "The Black Cat," Susan Scotto's "The Magic Cockroach" and Harlan Ellison's "Soft Monkey" (another Edgar Award winning story). I used it in "The Gorilla Murders" and "A Night for the Dogs."

Try the NAKED or NUDE, which draws automatic attention, as in the bogus best-seller NAKED CAME THE STRANGER, Norman Mailer's THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. I used it in an historical mystery "The Naked Lady of Whispering Gulch" and another novel THE BLUE NUDE.

One more suggestion. In the 21st Century we need short titles on our book covers, no more than four words because they have to read it in a THUMBNAIL. Sometimes putting four words, along with the author's name, is almost too much for a perusing reader viewing books online.

That's all for now ...



  1. A lot of great suggestions here, O'Neil. One thing I also do is keep a list of possible titles, snippets I've heard here or there, come across in reading or heard someone say, etc. Sometimes I use the list, sometimes not, but when you can't think of something it does come in handy to have one.

  2. Fun post, O'Neil. I'm always REALLY bad with titles--so this wasn't just enjoyable but educational too!

  3. O'Neil, we're thinking down the same road. My end of November post concerns the importance of titles. Good article on your part.

  4. Interesting post, O'Neil. By the way, the title GONE WITH THE WIND comes from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a minor (very minor) nineteenth-century English poet. The poem has a long Latin title that I won't pause to look up right now; many people remember it by its refrain--"I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion." The title DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES can be traced to a Dowson poem, too. Dowson didn't write great poems, but he did have a knack for phrases.

  5. Good post - and Art, I too have trouble with titles. I've come up with some real clunkers.

  6. As much as I love Dick Francis novels, I rarely can associate a title with the tale. There always seemed a disconnect, but maybe that’s me.

    According to a recent NPR broadcast, Joseph Heller and his publisher ran through a number of names before settling on Catch 22: Catch 11 was too evocative of Oceans 11, Catch 17 too much like Stalag 17, etc.

    Between my house and office is a certain kind of store that specializes in, shall we say, videos and products of a very personal nature. They’d post their latest movie titles on their marquee and more than once I arrived at work laughing with tears in my eyes. Who can forget such classics as Pornocchio, Lawrence of a Labia, Sleeping Booty, Terms of Endowment, The Loin King, and that golden oldie, Flesh Gordon.

  7. LeCarre has great titles: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA, A PERFECT SPY, etc. My first sale to AHMM was inspired by a title I dreamed up: "My Life as a Ghost." THey changed it to "The Dear Departed;" only time a publisher changed a title on me. HOwever, AHMM bought a tory from me recently and I invited them to change the title, cause I didn't like mine...


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