01 June 2024

Titles, Titles Everywhere, and Not a One Will Work

I like story titles. They not only catch the eye, they sometimes provide a look ahead, and if they're good enough, they can make the story better. The main thing is, titles makes a difference to editors and publishers, and in turn, to readers. 

I especially like cool titles, the ones that are witty or grand or "different" in some way. When I see one of those I find myself wishing I had come up with it. You know what I mean: The Guns of Navarone, "The Gift of the Magi," To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. That list could go on and on, and almost did, in a column I posted here at SleuthSayers early last year, called "A Sense of Entitlement." Those kinds of titles inspire me to try to create good ones for my own writing. 

With my short stories, I've found it's best to come up with a title early on, either before the writing starts or soon afterward. It can then serve as sort of a guide or compass to me during the course of the story. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes I charge off into battle with no hint of a title in mind. (Apparently I'm in good company there: Larry McMurtry once said in an interview that he had already written four hundred pages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before he came up a title for it. He eventually solved the problem while on a trip to Fort Worth. He was leaving a restaurant when a bus passed by with the name LONESOME DOVE CHURCH printed on the side--and suddenly he had his title.) In my case, several of my recent stories were completely finished before I had suitable titles, and I spent a looooong time trying to find some that fit the bill. 

Does that ever happen to you? What do you do when it does? How do you come up with satisfying titles at all, whether before, during, or after the writing, and avoid those that just don't do the job? (All of us have at some point "settled" for a lesser title, and that's never a good feeling.) What are some of your coolest titles? What are some titles by others, that you especially like? Let me know your thoughts on all this, in the comments.

Here are some things I usually think about, when I'm wrestling with a title choice. With each of these, I've included twenty examples from my own published stories, mainly because they were easy for me to find. 

1. Titles that are character names or nicknames:

Annabelle, Frankie, Lucifer, Sneaky Pete, Diamond Jim, Sweet Caroline, Purple Martin, The Jumper, Checkpoint Charlie, Mr. Unlucky, The Cookie Monster, The Sandman, The Messenger, The Locksmith, The Barlow Boys, King of the City, Billy the Kid, Shrinking Violet, Tomboy, Mustang Sally. 

(If your story's finished and you're stumped, you can even go back and substitute a catchy name/nickname for your protagonist or another main character and make that the story title. That's what I did to create some of the above. Sometimes even the villain's name will work. Think Hannibal, or Goldfinger.)

2. Titles that are place names:

Dentonville, Ship Island, Blackjack Road, Turtle Bay, Sand Hill, Rooster Creek, Palm Canyon, Hardison Park, Lookout Mountain, Mythic Heights, Dreamland, Redemption, The Starlite Drive-In, Silverlake, Shadygrove, Plymouth West, Crockett's Pond, The Rocking R, Bad Eagle Road, The Pine Lake Inn. 

(Same thing here. If finished, you can go back and set your untitled story in a neat-sounding location. Title problem solved!)

3. Titles that are times or time periods:

Flag Day, From Ten to Two, An Hour at Finley's, Summer in the City, 200 Days, Twenty Minutes in Riverdale, Run Time, War Day, Midnight, The First of October, Intermission, Nap Time, Valentine's Day, Flu Season, Break Time, Ladies' Day, Dry Spell, While You Were Out, A Day at the Office, A Night at the Park. 

4. Titles that are "possessives":

Molly's Plan, Thursday's Child, Bennigan's Key, Nobody's Business, Lindy's Luck, Lucy's Gold, Hartmann's Case, The Deacon's Game, Merrill's Run, Dooley's Code, Rosie's Choice, Dawson's Curse, Hildy's Fortune, Button's and Bo's, The Governor's Cup, The King's Island, Walker's Hollow, Lucian's Cadillac, Fool's Gold, The Devil's Right Hand.

(Like the others I mentioned, this can also be a last-minute bailout, and save you when you just can't decide on a good title otherwise.)

5. Titles that are a play on words:

Gone Goes the Weasel, A Bad Hare Day, Murphy's Lawyer, A Cold Day in Helena, The Rare Book Case, The Three Little Biggs, Henry's Ford, R.I.P. Van Winkler, Andy Get Your Gun, Della's Cellar, Escape Claus, Don't Mansion It, Ex Benedict, Mattie's Caddy, Snow Way Out, A Loan-ly Murder, Low Technology, Take the Money and Ron, North by Northeast, Amos' Last Words.

(My favorite kind of title.)

6. Titles with a double (or hidden) meaning:

Weekend Getaway, Tourist Trap, A Warm Welcome, Old Soldiers, High Anxiety, Quarterback Sneak, Burglar Proof, Gas Pains, Pocket Change, Spell Check, The Big Picture, Deliver Me, True Colors, Poetic Justice, Cat Burglar, The Coldest Case, A Sterling Event, Conventional Behavior, Business Class, A Trivial Pursuit.

7. Titles that are familiar phrases:

Little White Lies, In Other Words, Batteries Not Included, Nothing but the Truth, Not One Word, Eyes in the Sky, Better Late than Never, One Less Thing, Some Assembly Required, Eight in the Corner, A Stitch in Time, Name Your Poison, This Seat's Taken, No Strings Attached, The Outside World, In the Wee Hours, Unlucky at Love, A Shock to the System, The Noon Stage, The Gospel Truth. 

(My least-favorite kind of title--even though "The Noon Stage" was one of my favorite stories to write. BTW, I left out the ones with familiar two-word phrases, of which there are many.)

8. Titles that use "and" to connect two things or names:

Rhonda and Clyde, Bourbon and Water, Pros and Cons, Moonshine and Roses, The Browns and the Grays, The Ghost and Billy Martin, Art and Poetry, Punch and Judy, Lost and Found, Gert and Ernie, Camels and Starships, Friends and Neighbors, Trial and Error, Outfitters and Critters, Hearts and Flowers, In-Laws and Outlaws, Sunlight and Shadows, Lewis and Clark, Ducky and the Shooter, The Miller and the Dragon. 

9. One-word "summary" titles:

Survival, Ignition, Clockwork, Driver, Stopover, Oops!, Premonition, Creativity, Oversight, Turnabout, Partners, Trapped, Mailbox, Diversions, Sorcerer, Lightning, Proof, Fantasyland, Teamwork, Cargo.

10. Titles with "ing":

Burying Oliver, Getting Out Alive, Saving Mrs. Hapwell, Wronging Mr. Wright, Remembering Tally, Just Passing Through, Traveling Light, Mugging Mrs. Jones, Splitting Christmas, Playing with Fire, Going for the Gold, Cracking the Code, Saving Grace, Spending Money, Fishing for Clues, Catnapping, Waiting for the Bus, Stealing Roscoe, Driving Miss Lacey, Pushing Joe Carter. 

(Once again, this kind of title can be a good lifeline when you can't come up with anything else. Invent an appropriate action and add "ing.")

11. Titles (usually long) that have a "rhythm":

Debbie and Bernie and Belle, The Early Death of Pinto Bishop, On the Road with May Jo, The Friends of Lucy Devine, Liz and Drew and Betty Lou, The President's Residence, Romeo and Isabelle, An Evening at the Robertsons', What Luke Pennymore Saw, A Surprise for Digger Wade, A Nice Little Place in the Country, Everybody Comes to Lucille's, The Moon and Marcie Wade, We Can Work It Out, Turn Right at the Light, Last Day at the Jackrabbit, Whatever Happened to Lizzie Martin?, Billy Dinkin's Lincoln, From the Hill to the Park, Bad Day at Big Rock.

(One of my favorite "lilting rhythm" movie titles is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.)

12. Three-word "Robert Ludlum" titles (like The Bourne Identity, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.):

The Zeller Files, The Jericho Train, The Donovan Gang, The Winslow Tunnel, The Pullman Case, The Plimpton Scholar, The Artesian Light, The Midnight Child, The Foreverglow Case, The Nelson Enigma, The Ironwood File, The Sallisaw Blowout, The POD Squad, The Delta Princess, The Florida Blues, The Willisburg Stage, the Navarro Principle, The Dolan Killings, The Long Branch, The Cado Devil.

There are of course many, many other types and sources of titles, but the above twelve "prompts" are some that I've found to be handy. Looking back over my stories, I also found a lot of titles that use "of the," "in the," "to the," "from the," "at the," "with the," "for the," and so forth--but hey, enough is enough.

If somehow you're still reading this, I'll mention one of my most recent accepted stories--its title came from a local TV news broadcast I saw not long ago, about a shooting in a nearby city. When the reporter asked a wide-eyed bystander what happened, the guy--a friend of both the suspect and the victim--solemnly said, "Bubba done shot Jasper." Those weren't the actual names he used on the air (I've changed them here to protect the innocent, although one of them wasn't), but I admired that profound observation enough to steal it and use it myself. Several weeks ago, thanks to that news report, I sold a mystery story called "Skeeter Done Shot Billy Bob" to a crime anthology to be published this fall. 

Titles really are everywhere.



  1. Fun column! Some of my favorites from my own titles: Greenfellas. Shanks for the Memory. Professor Pie is Going to Die. The Dance of Love and Hunger. The Lord of Falling Objects. Shooting at Firemen. The Long Treason. A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts. Snake in the Sweetgrass.

    1. Rob, I actually thought of "Professor Pie Is Going to Die" when I was writing that section about the rhythmic sound of some story titles. That one just "rolls off the tongue." You've had many titles that I thought were witty and appropriate at the same time, and I truly do think that helps a story. Thanks for those examples!

  2. John,

    Great topic. Great fun. I usually have my title right from the start. On the rare occasions I don't have one, I use a placeholder title. I can't start writing until I have a title, even a bad one. I wrote an essay that left me stumped for a good title. Bill McCormick offered suggestions. I played with Bill's suggestions and came up with a title that worked. I like titles that appear in the text. I started a novel with a title I did not like, but it was the best I could come up. Well into the novel, a character says something to the main character, and I thought, "Bingo. That's my title." It's a great title. Paula

    1. Paula, you're not alone. Several of my writer friends say they have to have a title, or at least a title in mind, before they start writing. Josh Pachter does that, I think. I agree that it's better when you do have one in mind, but not having one doesn't stop me. As you said, a title sometimes comes to you as you write, or even afterward (in my case).

      Hey, Bill's not a bad source of advice, on anything storywise.

      Thanks as always!

  3. I'm half and half about titles: sometimes I have it from the beginning, sometimes I don't. My favorite titles of my own are "No Fences", "Nude With Snow Geese", "Grown-Ups are All Alike", "The Seven Day Itch", and "The Devil in Salem Meadows."

    1. Whoa, I like all of those, Eve. I still remember one of your AHMM titles, "The Porcupine Tree." (Wasn't that it?) I bet that was fifteen years ago, at least. Good stuff!!

    2. Yes, that was indeed one of mine, set on a hunting trip that went terribly wrong (or right, depending on whose side you took). Thanks for remembering!

    3. Eve, I remember a LOT of your AHMM stories--and all of them were good. That title just stood out especially, though.

  4. Excellent points here, John. Over the years, I've learned that the title is your first opportunity to snag the reader's attention, so you should take the time to do it right.

    1. I agree, Mike. What I hate is when I come up with what I think at the time is a good title, send the story off, and then think of a better one. This is an iffy business.

      Thank you as always!

  5. I struggle with title names (and literally doing so right now with something I plan to submit today) so this column was very timely! Thanks for such a comprehensive guide!
    Ashley Bernier

  6. Hey Ashley! Yep, I sometimes find that I'm pretty much finished with a story, and coming up with a good title is all that's left before I can submit it. Good luck!!!

  7. Great post, John. My first proposed PI was a wannabe guitar player, so I compiled a list of song titles that might work as mysteries, too. I've used several of them, but over 100 still wait on the shelf.

    I like to have at least a working title, but it often changes. I'm in the middle of a first draft right now that began with two possible titles, but about five pages in, the "real" title popped out of the story and now I know where I'm going.

    My favorite title story: My second Woody Guthrie novel was going to be called Hot Rod Lincoln and involve a guy who stole high-end cars. Since Commander Cody was from Detroit, where the story took place, I thought it was perfect. Unfortunately, as the story developed, Hot Rod became a minor character instead of a major player, almost a McGuffin. My cover designer and I tossed around other car songs: "Spring Little Cobra," "409," "Little Deuce Coupe," and every one sounded dumber than the one before. Then my wife, the brains of the family, who used to write radio commercials, suggested "Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz."

    And there we were...

    1. Man, I love the Benz title. The long titles, to me, are good only if they're (1) familiar or (2) easy to read, or rhythmic. That one is both. As for discovering a title while you're writing (or picking one that you know is just right, from several possibilities), isn't that a great feeling? Having what I know is a good title sort of gives me a feeling of security, I think, as the story progresses. (I'm often amazed at how much of the writing process is mental. If you "feel good" about a story while you're writing it, it'll probably turn out good. If you struggle too much, it probably won't.)

      I actually started to list song titles as a possibility, in this column, but since I've only done it myself a few times, I didn't. Thanks for doing that, in your comment!

  8. For my stories, I generally rip-off song titles ("Shine On Harvest Moon," "Mr. Brownstone.") or steal from Shakespeare ("Love's Not Time's Fool" [I'm working on that one!]) or do terrible puns, lie the one for a story about third-shift aircraft workers who are mostly vampires "Night Work If You Can Get It." Wonderful column, as always, John! Oh; one of the first stories I ever wrote that was any good (but never got published!) went through several titles before I grabbed "Salt Of The Earth," after the 'essential salts" referenced in the story. I think it was a lousy title! (Not as good as a later story: "The Creature Of Wine Cooler Cove.")

    1. Jeff, you and Liskow are both song-title thieves--and it's worked out well! I think it's probably an advantage when a reader sees a familiar title like that, as long as the story measures up. (I've had stories in several music-themed anthologies (mostly Josh's) where the title of the song is expected to be the title of the story, but I've also been in a few others where the stories are supposed to be based on a particular song but it's okay to have a different story title.)

      How could ANYone not want to read a story called "The Creature of Wine Cooler Cove"??

      Thank you, Jeff, as always, for the thoughts. You are appreciated!

    2. You're welcome and thanks!

  9. Cool article.
    I've always struggled with titles and almost never come up with one until the story is finished, or almost finished.
    Your post got me looking back at some of my titles. "Signed, Sealed, Dead," "Sea Shells at the Sea Shore," "In the Blood," "Going Overboard."

    1. Okay, I LOVE "Sea Shells at the Sea Shore." Also "Going Overboard." Nothing like setting the stage early, right?

      You know, I still try (as I mentioned) to come up with a title early on, and I think that does work best for me, but--like you--I often never have one until later, or I decide to abandon my earlier choices and find a new title. I've finally come to believe it doesn't matter all that much, if the final result works. The problem is, the titles I come up with "after the fact" often mean I need to go back into the story to change some things around--but even so, those late-found titles have turned out to be some of my favorites.

      No easy answers, right? We all just have to do what works. Thanks, Bob, for the comment!

  10. Strangely, never have a problem coming up with titles myself.

    1. Count your blessings! One less thing to worry about, right?

  11. Great discussion! I always search for a title will that make a reader want to know more. Favorites from my own works: The Snake Woman's Revenge, Cruel Music, The True Story of the Whirlaway Cafe, and The Iron Tongue of Midnight.

    1. Whoa, Bev, great titles. I especially like the last two. Yes, all four of these titles of yours are intriguing enough to lure the reader in. "The Whirlaway Cafe"?? Fantastic.

      Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers. Stay in touch!

  12. Great again, John. You've covered the hows and whys so well. I particularly love the double meaning. My soon to be released story 'Under Cover" is about the protags job and a young girls use of a furniture moving wrap to save her life. Titles come easy for me--monthly acceptances, well, let's say 'work in progress'. Now that sounds like a good title...hmmm..
    Cheers, Wil

    1. Yep, double meanings always work well--even if they're not revealed until later. In fact, it's especially effective when they aren't revealed until later.

      Wil, I envy writers like you and Justin--I can't say titles come easily for me. But I've learned to work at it enough that I can eventually come up them. As mentioned, I hate to settle for a mediocre title when a little more work and thought might give me one that's more satisfying. As for monthly acceptances, I think that comes mostly from making monthly submissions. Send out enough stories, you'll get acceptances.

      Take care, and thanks!

  13. John, I almost always use titles that speak to the plot. "The Goddaughter's Revenge," "The Merry Widow Murders" - "The Mob, the Model and the College Reunion" - I like titles that tell the reader something about what to expect. I find one word titles usually uncompelling. They don't tell us enough. Melodie

    1. I love those titles of yours, Melodie, and yes, speaking to the plot is always a good thing to do. Going along with that is something I don't think I've even mentioned yet: the need to pick a title that's *appropriate* to the story--and your examples are. (I'm crazy about Lee Child's novels, but very few of them have titles that are memorable, or that tell you ANYthing about the plot.) Also, what I like about titles like The Goddaughter's Revenge and Rob's Greenfellas and others is that they take something familiar and turn it around in a clever way.

      I gotta disagree with you, though on one-word titles. I do like many of those, especially when they're names, like Bullitt, Carrie, Rocky, Amadeus, Shane, Rebecca, Hannibal, Laura, Shrek, Hondo, Goldfinger, Frankenstein, etc., and sometimes even when they're not names: Psycho, Titanic, Jaws, Fargo, Aliens, Network, Deliverance, Thunderball, Casablanca, Duel, Chinatown, Heat, Vertigo, Yellowstone, Airplane, Stagecoach, Congo, Avatar, Dune, Ozark, Gladiator, etc. etc. etc. You're right that they sometimes don't tell us much, but if the title's cool enough I don't think it matters.

      Crazy stuff, right?

  14. I like to use titles that are play on words or have a double meaning (especially if they are telling about the plot after you know what the plot is, such as with my story "Bug Appétit"). Both kinds can be memorable. Puns are better with lighthearted tales. I got a lot of good feedback on "Beauty and the Beyotch" last year. With my title "Five Days to Fitness," one reader said, "Where do I sign up?" "Dear Emily Etiquette" worked well because it represented the epistolary nature of the story. One title I hadn't been thrilled with was "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast." I couldn't come up with a better one at the time. Only sometime in the past year (more than five years after it was published) did I one day think of a play on words that would have worked perfectly. A little late. (And of course now I've forgotten it.)

    Fun post, John.

    1. Ha! Yep, that's a case of Late Is Not Always Better, isn't it. Sometimes late just doesn't matter anymore. But it probably gave you some satisfaction anyhow!

      I agree with you on all points, especially that a too-punny title won't work for a serious or gritty story. I used to love using puns with my little Woman's World mini-mysteries, which are *required* to be lighthearted. And yes, your Emily Etiquette title fit that story perfectly.

      Another great thing about your clever play-on-words titles are that they're so memorable. See those titles and you won't easily forget them.

      Thanks so much, Barb!

  15. Elizabeth Dearborn01 June, 2024 18:19

    I'm another person who rips off song titles, especially country music titles. Here are a few from my playlist. I haven't written the stories yet to go with the titles! "Where's Your Boyfriend At", "No Money In This Deal", "It Wasn't Me", "Dumb Blonde", & one I wish I could write, Loretta Lynn's "Fist City".

    But sometimes an editor will buy a story & then change the title without even telling the author ... 😒

    1. Good titles, Elizabeth. Again, I think song titles work well because they're already familiar. And you make a good point, about editors changing titles. It doesn't happen to me often, and never at most places, but it does happen now and then, and I never like it when it does. Such is life.

      Thanks for the comment. Keeping up the great writing!

  16. Wonderful post, John! One of the most insightful and helpful I've ever read. As a younger writer, I used to envy the titles of writers like Eugene O'Neill who came up with "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Moon for the Misbegotten," and "The Iceman Cometh." I'd struggle and struggle and finally come up with "Dead as a Mailbox" and "He Had a Gun in His Hand." Thirty years later, I still struggle with titles, so they come last. Your alternatives and variations will get me thinking. Thanks.

    1. Hey John--thank you! I'm pleased you feel my prompts might be helpful.

      One thing I don't think I mentioned is making a title out of something in the text of your story, like the title To Kill a Mockingbird. (I've done that a number of times.) There are endless sources that can be used, and--as you said--trying to come up with a satisfactory result can be frustrating. I wish you the very best!

      Thanks again for visiting SleuthSayers.


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