04 March 2023

A Sense of Entitlement, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I did a column here at SleuthSayers about some of my favorite titles of books, stories and movies, and the comments made by friends and readers on that subject convinced me to follow that post with another discussion of fictional titles. (Are you sorry you commented?)

To me, the most interesting thing about this topic is--and always has been--the way different authors handle the task of titling their work. I've talked to quite a few writers about this, and some say they come up with a title first, before the writing starts; others wait until after the story/novel/etc. is finished; and still others choose a title during the writing process. I do it in all three of these ways, depending on the story, but I most often select a title during or after the writing is done. I just find that to be easier. Which way is best? Who knows. Different strokes.

If I had my druthers, I think I'd come up with the title first. I believe that kind of blank-slate approach might allow you to create a title that's truly special and catchy--and you could then write your story to fit the title. My old writing buddy Josh Pachter almost always does it that way, and even keeps a long list of titles that he likes and intends to use at some point. How's that for planning?

But no matter when a writer chooses a title, the next thing is (obviously) what will the title be?

For me, it's often something that describes the plot in some way, and maybe even a phrase or piece of dialogue I've used in the story. But not always. Sometimes titles are simple, sometimes complex, sometimes mysterious. I usually don't give it serious thought until fairly late in the story, but in the rare cases when the story's finished or almost finished and I'm still having a really hard time coming up with a good title, I do think about it--because I'm forced to. And when that happens, here are some of the hints that I've found to be helpful, over the years.

NOTE: The following examples are all stories of my own (an even dozen of each type).

1. A title can be a play on words.

Murphy's Lawyer, The President's Residence, Driving Miss Lacey, Amos's Last Words, Mill Street Blues, A Shot in the Park, Byrd and Ernie, North by Northeast, Henry's Ford, Bad Times at Big Rock, Wronging Mr. Wright, Gone Goes the Weasel 

2. A title can be a person's name or nickname.

Annabelle, Sneaky Pete, Billy the Kid, Lucifer, Frankie, Diamond Jim, Sweet Caroline, The Sandman, The Delta Princess, Robert, Tomboy, Mustang Sally

3. A title can be a place name.

Lookout Mountain, Ship Island, Mythic Heights, Turtle Bay, Blackjack Road, Dentonville, Sand Hill, Silverlake, Land's End, The Rocking R, The Barrens, Rooster Creek

4. A title can have a hidden or double meaning, later revealed.

Smoke Test, A Thousand Words, Calculus 1, War Day, Knights of the Court, The Powder Room, Wheels of Fortune, Run Time, A Gathering of Angels, Melon CollieBaby, True Colors, Weekend Getaway

5. A title can be a possessive.

Molly's Plan, Lindy's Luck, The Deacon's Game, Newton's Law, Lucy's Gold, Nobody's Business, Walker's Hollow, Lily's Story, Hildy's Fortune, The Judge's Wife, Rosie's Choice, The Devil's Right Hand

6. A title can be an "ing" phrase.

Stealing Roscoe, Remembering Tally, Getting Out Alive, Mugging Mrs. Jones, Traveling Light, Burying Oliver, Heading West, Fishing for Clues, Shrinking Violet, Cracking the Code, Dancing in the Moonlight, Saving Mrs. Hapwell

7. A title can be a familiar term or phrase.

Two in the Bush, Just Passing Through, Not One Word, Elevator Music, Eyes in the Sky, Life Is Good, One Less Thing, Flu Season, Deliver Me, Some Assembly Required, Tourist Trap, In the Wee Hours

8. A title can be intentionally unique or different, or have a pleasing "rhythm."

What Luke Pennymore Saw, A Nice Little Place in the Country, The Daisy Nelson Case, The Miller and the Dragon, The Pony Creek Gang, The Starlite Drive-In, Everybody Comes to Lucille's, The Moon and Marcie Wade, The Early Death of Pinto Bishop, Debbie and Bernie and Belle, A Surprise for Digger Wade, On the Road with Mary Jo

9. A title can be the name of an object or some other thing in the story.

The Winslow Tunnel, The Ironwood File, The Willisburg Stage, The Artesian Light, Grandpa's Watch, The Blue Wolf, The Medicine Show, The Wading Pool, Pocket Change, The Tenth Floor, Crow's Nest, The Jericho Train

10. A title can be the name of a group.

The Barlow Boys, The Donovan Gang, The Garden Club, Travelers, Night Watchers, The A Team, Partners, The TV People, Rhonda and Clyde, Matchmakers, Friends and Neighbors, The Bomb Squad 

11. A title can be a time, date, or time period.

An Hour at Finley's, The First of October, 200 Days, Break Time, From Ten to Two, Game Day, A Night at the Park, Summer in the City, Last Day at the Jackrabbit, While You Were Out, A Cold Day in Helena, Twenty Minutes in Riverdale

12. A title can be simple, as long as it's appropriate to the story.

Ignition, Teamwork, Sentry, Sightings, Watched, Lightning, Trapped, Mailbox, Layover, Redemption, Proof, Cargo

Switching gears a bit . . . one thing I've always found fascinating is the way some authors use titles as a marketing trademark, to such a degree that readers/fans can sometimes identify the author simply from his/her titles. Here are some of those that come to mind:

Sue Grafton (the alphabet) -- A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C  Is for Corpse, D is for Deadbeat

Janet Evanovich (numbers) -- One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score

James Patterson (nursery rhymes) -- Three Blind Mice, Roses are Red, Jack and Jill, Cradle and All

John D. MacDonald (colors) -- The Dreadful Lemon Sky, The Lonely Silver Rain, The Green Ripper, The Empty Copper Sea

Martha Grimes (English pub names) -- The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, The Anodyne Necklace, Jerusalem Inn

Robert Ludlum (three-word titles) -- The Matarese Circle, The Holcroft Covenant, The Rhinemann Exchange, The Bourne Identity

Erle Stanley Gardner (the case of . . .) -- The Case of the Crooked Candle, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess, The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Daring Decoy

John Sandford (the word "prey") -- Rules of Prey, Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey, Night Prey

James Michener (single-word titles) -- Hawaii, Chesapeake, Iberia, Space, Poland, Alaska

I realize I'm rambling a bit, but to me titles and title choices are an interesting topic.

Please let me know, in the comments section below: How do you go about choosing a title for your novel or story? Do you have a system that seems to work? Do you feel you're good at picking titles? Is it a task that's hard for you? Easy? When, in the writing process, do you usually select your title? What do you feel are your best titles? And finally: Have you ever considered or written a series of stories or novels having titles that serve to "tie them together," like Liz Zelvin's "Death Will . . ." series? Nosy blog writers want to know . . .

And that's that. Good luck to all, in your writing endeavors.

I'll be back with another post in two weeks. (Hopefully with a cool title.)


  1. Great post, John. In fact, I will save it on my computer. It might be a source of inspiration to brainstorm a good title!

    I usually come up with a suitable title while writing the story. But I always start with a working title, just to name the thing. That works well. Sometimes, I need to take time to brainstorm.

    I like titles to look familiar if they're part of the same series.
    In my Robbie & Lowina series, EQMM published:
    "The Poet Who Locked Himself In"
    "The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin"

    But titles shouldn't be too similar. Take, for example, the "in death" series by J.D. Robb. I can't tell the book titles apart, they aren't distinctive enough.

    1. Hi Anne. Thank you--I hope my list of title prompts *will* inspire you! I find myself falling back on those--especially the "ing" constructions and the possessives--when I'm having difficulty coming up with anything. As for working titles, I too give my WIP some kind of temporary title so I can find it again, but sometimes mine are filenames like "New Story 2-17-23." Very imaginative.

      I like your Robbie & Lowina titles. Reminds me of Lawrence Block's "The Burglar Who . . ." series.

      Thank you for stopping in!

  2. Stimulating topic, John. Although I’ve never used one myself, I’m partial to titles from literature. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death Be Not Proud, Of Mice and Men, The Sound and the Fury.
    Edward Lodi

    1. I too like those titles from existing works, Edward--but I also have not used one myself, that I can recall. Those you listed are some of the best. It's surprising how many titles came from either the Bible or the plays of Shakespeare.

  3. I've used titles from literature: Great Expectations, for one. My favorite title is "Miss West's First Case", which actually is the story of how Miss West got her first official case, by investigating an unofficial one. Some stories are easier to title than others, that's all I can say.

    1. Eve, "Miss West's First Case" not only sounds good, it's one of those titles that is as appropriate and descriptive as it could possibly be, right? As for some stories being easier to title than others, I so agree. Now and then--not often enough--I come up with a story for which several different titles would work, and I have to choose between them. (I love it when that happens.)

      Thanks as always for the thoughts.

  4. Great essay! In answer to your question...

    My Pinnacle Peak series titles come from the Shakespeare play on which the book is based.
    “SPURRED AMBITION” is from a line in Macbeth, “HEIR APPARENT” is a phrase in Hamlet, etc.

    My Finn Teller novels and short stories always have one-word, monosyllabic (except for EXIT) titles made up of a word that is both a noun and a verb, each with different meanings, both of which pertain to the story. Examples: FAKE, DOUBT, GAME, COIN, SPLICE etc.

    As for the rest of my short stories, see your points 1-12, above! ;)

    1. Twist, I actually thought of you when I was remembering Michener's one-word novel titles, earlier. Great examples of why good titles don't have to be long and overly descriptive.

      And yes, you're one of those authors who DO use titles from Shakespeare. They always seem to work well.

      The only thing I've regretted, in titling my stories, is that sometimes I'll come up with one that I think is great, put it on the story, submit it, and then think of a better one. Such is life . . .

      You've always been a writer I admire. Thank you for chiming in!

  5. Great topic, John, and a very entertaining breakdown of titling strategies! Looking over a list of my titles, I guess a few patterns emerge.

    I usually think of a title in the process of writing. Often some line of dialogue or scrap of description contains a phrase that just catches my fancy. A lot of my titles are very brief and don’t really convey much about the actual content of the story (“Crime Scene,” “Clarity,” “Off The Shelf”).

    As I’ve written more I’ve been tending toward longer, more distinctive titles: “Etta at the End of the World,” “The Last Man in Lafarge,” “Herb Ecks Goes Underground.” Those three stories all won or were nominated for awards, which makes me think that unique titles like these might help stories stick in reader (and voter) minds.

    Lately I’ve been developing a tendency to use commas in titles: “The Truncated Reign of Melvin, Prince of the Enveloping Darkness”; “Stacy, Under the Sky”; “And Now, An Inspiring Story of Tragedy Overcome”; “Some Sunny Day, Baby.”

    Sometimes I pick a title just to amuse myself. A few years ago I had a story published called “Last Seen Heading North.” When I was casting about for a title for a more recent story, I landed on “Last Seen Heading East.” The two stories have nothing to do with each other, but I now feel obligated to write “Last Seen Heading West” and “Last Seen Heading South.”

    There’s only one time I can recall thinking of a title and then writing a story to fit it. When I was a kid, my parents had a bunch of Bill Cosby comedy albums (I know, I know, but let’s not get into it now). In one routine he imitated an athlete doing a razor commercial, saying his face was “ripped to shreds.” As a very young child, I didn’t understand what he was saying, and I heard it as “riptish reds.” I thought “riptish reds” must be the name of a skin condition or something (it could be argued that I was a fairly stupid kid). It always stuck in my brain, and I eventually decided to use it as a title, if only to figure out what the hell it meant (if you’re curious, “Riptish Reds” is included in the first volume of Michael Bracken’s MICKEY FINN series).

    I continue to think the king of titles is Harlan Ellison. You can’t beat gems like “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and of course, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman.”

    1. Joe, I'm glad you reminded me about Harlan Ellison--yes, I loved his titles. Lawrence Block's also, and I'd also neglected to mention him much in these past two posts.

      One of my favorites, of yours, was "Etta at the End of the World." (Another of those clever titles that I secretly wished I'd thought of before you did.) I'm so pleased that you listed some others of yours as well.

      And--before I forget--congratulations once more on your inclusion in the upcoming Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2023. Well done!!

  6. Thanks for the shoutout, John! Yes, I'd say probably ninety percent of my stories begin with a title.

    The title pattern I seem to like the most comes in two permutations: "The [Noun] of [Noun]" and "The [Adjective] [Noun] of [Noun]." Off the top of my head from my own work, I can think of "The Tree of Life," "The Night of Power," "The Illusion of Control," "The Defenstration of Prague," "The City of Light," "The Stopwatch of Death," "The Supreme Art of War," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "The First Law of Plumbing," "The Stone Steps of Death"....

    PS: I want to draw everyone's attention to the fact that John has provided a dozen different approaches to title selection and a dozen examples of his own titles for each — which if I'm doing the math right adds up to a hundred and forty-four published stories right there, which is more than most writers will ever achieve ... and just a fraction of John's total output!

    1. Josh, you told me only recently about the fact that you kept that list of potential titles--and I think it's a great approach. I've never had the foresight to do something like that.

      Yes, I too like the "the blank of blank" title progression, and have used it--I confess I couldn't think of a good way to describe it, in the post. By the way, I still have your Tree of Life collection here on my shelf!

      As for the number of my stories, I first tried to list too many titles as examples, and realized there was no need for that. Under the heading "A title can be a familiar term or phrase," I stopped when I realized I'd listed around sixty of my stories that fit that category--way way too many to put in a post like this, and nobody would care anyhow. So I decided to choose a dozen of each type and let it go at that.

      Keep up the fine writing, my friend. Thanks for the comment, and the kind words!

  7. Mary Ann Joyce04 March, 2023 13:21

    Great article, John! I love all your hints for coming up with titles and plan to keep it for reference! I guess I use some of your ideas for coming up with titles already, but they aren’t the easiest part of writing for me. But it is fun “hard work” thinking about them. I recently starting brainstorming titles and keeping them in a journal, before writing the story. Also, like you, they often come to me at any stage of the process—before, after, and during writing. I have to say, when I submit a story with a memorable title I often have higher hopes and more confidence sending it into the world! My daughter and I sold a recent mini mystery to Woman’s World titled, (drumroll)… “The Death of a Bachelor Baker:” Pretty catchy, if you ask me. Haha!

    1. Hey Mary Ann. It IS hard work sometimes, coming up with effective titles. But isn't it fun when you dream up one you *really* like, one that you know is a winner.

      Yes, I think a good title does give you confidence, when you submit it a story. And, though I don't believe I've mentioned this, I sometimes change a title several times during the course of a story. I can only I hope I've never substituted a worse one for a better one, but you never know.

      Your WW title is great! So nice that you and your daughter can team up on those stories, right?

      Thanks so much for the thoughts. Best to you and family! (By the way, I can't wait to see the latest Shyamalan movie--Knock at the Cabin. Not a bad title there, either!)

  8. Hi John - I'm a career marketer, did my time as a marketing copywriter, led branding initiatives, etc, so my background lent itself to producing catchy titles. In 17 books, and 60 short stories, no publisher has changed the title I proposed, happily. I aim for the protagonist's name or position in the title (The Goddaughter, The Goddaughter's Revenge, The Merry Widow Murders, Rowena Through the wall) and for series, continue that idea so you can recognize that the new book is part of the previous series. Sometimes takes me a few weeks to get it right, but I go at it as if I were part of a creative team in the old days, brainstorming what we want the brand to say. I've helped a lot of friends with titles.

    1. Melodie, you're a regular Don Draper!! I'm not surprised that that advertising experience has helped. I've always loved your titles--but especially Rowena, Through the Wall.

      And I'm truly impressed that none of your titles have been changed by editors/publishers. What a record! I can certainly NOT make that claim.

      Keep on keepin' on. And thank you!

  9. Fun post, John. If I remember correctly, Sandra Scoppotone and Ed Gorman both used to use song titles, Gorman from early rock 'n' roll, and Scoppotone from the Swing era for their titles.

    Since I originally saw "Woody" Guthrie as a wannabe guitar hero, I set out to compile a list of the rock and blues titles I thought might be good mystery titles. So far, the majority of both my novels and short stories have been song titles or allusions to songs, and I still have about five pages of titles left that I'll never get around to using.

    As for title or story, I usually start with the title, but it often changes to a different song somewhere along the way. At the moment, I can only think of one title that an editor wanted me to change, and that's one of the few that wasn't originally a song title.

    1. Steve, good for you! For using song titles AND for keeping a big list of them for future stories! Sounds like a great idea to me. I've written several stories in the past several years that have song titles, but mostly because they were stories written for music-themed anthologies that *wanted* the titles to be the names of songs.

      I envy you and all those who've written so few stories with titles that editors have wanted to change. I guess the overall percentage of title changes for my stories is small, but I've certainly had a lot of them that were changed before publication. (And I rarely liked the changes that were made--surprise, surprise.)


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