29 January 2017

Titles & Expectations

by R.T. Lawton

In days of yore, people used words and phrases that have fallen out of usage in modern times, but words and their use were as powerful then as they are today. Change one word in a phrase or a title and the whole meaning can change.

Take for instance, the medieval era where titles let everyone know what position in life a titled person had and therefore gave expectations as to how you perceived that person and what their duties were. At the top of the hierarchy were the kings and queens. Everyone expected that the ones holding these titles would rule over the people and lands where they held dominance. Next level down were dukes, barons and others, depending upon how the king set up the organizational chart. Your next class of titles, if you will, were more of a job description than a rank, but they still gave everyone an expectation for what the person with that title did in life. These titles fell into labels such as blacksmith, huntsman, cook, scullery maid, etc. However, you add one word to the front of that title, such as head or assistant and that huntsman can move up or down in job position. The power of words and the receiver's expectations.

This brings us to story titles. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, the book became a bestseller. The author then put out two more books with titles which started with the same first two words. Next thing you know, there are lots of titles starting with The Girl... Agents, editors, publicists and yes, even authors, quickly realized the potential salability of a book with a title starting with the words The Girl... So now you have The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, The Girl With No Past, The Girl with The Lower Back Tattoo, The Girl You Lost and several others. The marketing thought here being that there would be a positive carryover from the success of Stieg Larson's novels to the expectations in potential buyers of books with similar sounding titles. And, that marketing thought seems to have some credibility. Once again, the power of and  the expectations of words.

Thus, the words you choose for your story titles should produce the type of expectations you want in potential buyers of your works, plus help convert those buyers into becoming continued readers of your future publications. A kind of gather ye fans while you may, sort of thing. Naturally, to do this, it's best if you have a title that's intriguing, gives the reader an idea of what's in the story and maybe even brands the stories (assuming they are a series) for the author.

In my case, I tried to do all three for the ten titles in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. All of these titles have either the word bond or bail in the title. In these stories, the firm's proprietor and his bail agent manage to obtain some high value collateral from dastardly criminals and then render these clients as deceased, thus making extravagant profits from their demise. The one story with the word bail in it, "The Big Bail Out," is a play on words, since it involves both bailing out a financially troubled corporation and the crooked officers of that company having a fondness for their hobby of skydiving.

"Resolutions"- 9th in Holiday Burglars
AHMM Jan/Feb 2017 issue
In the fourth of my five series in AHMM, the Holiday Burglars series, each story is connected to a caper during a holiday. In this series, I put a play on words in each title. For instance, "Click, Click, Click," the first in the series concerns Christmas. Many of you probably remember some of the words to the song Up on the Housetop. "...up on the housetop, click, click, click, down through the chimney with good Saint Nick..." Well, in this case, Beaumont and Yarnell dressed as santas have entered the back door of a residence in order to steal the cash a drug dealer temporarily conceals in Christmas packages under the tree. Unfortunately for them, the counted houses from their position in the alley instead of from the street side like their informant gave them the information, therefore they have now entered the home of a fanatical NRA member. The clicking sound the two burglars hear is not reindeer hooves on the roof, but rather the clicking noise a big handgun makes when the hammer is being cocked.

For anther title in the series, Labor Day," yep you guessed it. Beaumont, Yarnell and their protege The Thin Guy are descending in a creaky old elevator from the penthouse they just burgled while its owner was off on a Labor Day excursion. The elevator makes a few stops on its way down to take on and unload passengers. Shortly after a very pregnant lady gets on, the elevator becomes stuck between floors. The baby picks this time to enter the world. Firemen, police and news crews are soon aware of the stuck elevator and the pending birth. The only person on the elevator who is remotely qualified to assist in procedures involving anatomy is The Thin Guy who used to be employed as an assistant mortician. The words are all done in fun.

So how do you create your titles? Do you brand? And how? Do you find particular words as powerful or intriguing or more likely for potential readers to buy your story? Or, even for you as a reader to pick up a book in the store and open it to see if your interest continues beyond the title? Do words commonly seen in titles, words such as devil, blood or murder affect your thinking in titling or purchasing a book?

Chime in on your opinions, creative thoughts and branding ideas through titles.


  1. Hi, R.T. — Love your series stories--and love this glimpse into house you've constructed the titles for them. I'm always bad with titles, and they often change several times over the course of writing the story; even at the end, I find myself struggling to know which is best, which to go with....

    Between you, O'Neil, and John--I think that's all the folks with recent posts on titles--I clearly need to get on the ball and work smarter on these!

    Thanks for the fun and informative post.

  2. Excellent ideas for branding your stories and/or books. Something I should have done with a couple of my series but didn't. I have some unrelated books with NEW ORLEANS in the title. However, when I wrote the first novel of my latest series (a paranormal secret agent series due out in a few weeks), I titled it LUCIFER'S TIGER. There will be more Lucifer books with his name up front. We'll see if that gets traction.

  3. Thanks, Art. I wrote the article months ago to stay ahead of the game. So when other SleuthSayers put up articles on titles, it was like having an unofficial theme week.

  4. O'Neil, anything that gives author recognition or series recognition to a potential reader is good branding. Continuous use of the words "New Orleans" and "Lucifer" should do well for you. Best wishes on your new series.

  5. I enjoyed your post, R.T., and I've enjoyed your stories in AHMM. I've used a kind of title branding for two of my three AHMM series. My stories about police detectives Walt Johnson and Gordon Bolt began back in 1988 with "True Detective" (my first published story) and continued with "True Confession," "True Crime," and so on, finally ending in 2014 with "True Enough." I decided to end the series partly because a dozen stories in a series felt like a natural place to stop, partly because it was getting harder to come up with "true" phrases that would work as titles. And the titles for stories about amateur sleuth Leah Abrams always begin with "death"--"Death on a Budget," "Death in Rehab," and so on. (The most recent story, "Death under Construction," was accepted a while ago.)Does this sort of title branding attract readers? I don't know, but it's been fun for me.

  6. Thanks, Bonnie. I've enjoyed your stories, too, and always look forward with great anticipation when I find stories by SS authors in AHMM or EQMM, plus some of the anthologies.

    You bring up a good point about ending a series at about a dozen stories. Two of my series are at ten stories each and it is becoming more difficult to continue these characters, much less come up with relevant titles for branding. Time for some new series, although I find myself waiting to see if the first story gets picked up. It seems I have a couple of 2-3 story series that never went to the big leagues of mystery magazines.

  7. On my novels, AUSTIN CITY BLUE, and DARK BLUE DEATH. Both use the Blue to denote, police blue and the main character is Zoe Barrow an Austin Police woman. The third novel which I never sold and so it has never been published is BLOKEN BLUE BADGE. One day I hope to get it finished and at least get it published online.

    My short stories have always been in theme anthologies, DEADLY ALLIES I & 2. All the CAT CRIME anthologies, etc. so my short story titles were usually geared to the anthology. Like "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit" was in SANTA CLUES anthology. Since I've never written for EQMM or AHMM I've not titled any short stories that had the same characters although I've had several short stories using the same characters in different anthologies.

    Of course we all remember Sue Grafton and her Alphabet Novels. A IS FOR ALIBI, B IS FOR BURGLAR. I think she just published X. Leaving only Y & Z to come. Branding Titles really worked for her.

  8. Love your post, love your ideas, love your stories. I'll have to start doing more branding than I have, that's for sure!

  9. I try to get two meanings out of titles and it's nice if one's ironic or a pun.

    One title, Untenable, contains a theme that occurs throughout the story, the number 10.

  10. I like a title that tells me something about a story. In my view, single word titles like "Legacy" or the name of a town can be lacking if they don't tell me the genre, or something about the story.

    You bet I brand (otherwise I'd have to give back my marketing degree!) All my series, crime and fantasy, have the protagonist in the title for each book. The Goddaughter. The Goddaughter's Revenge. Rowena Through the Wall. Rowena and the Viking Warlord. I'm told by readers that they find it easy to find the next book in the series.
    Good post!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>