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Fiction Patterns

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

For fiction, almost anything can work as a title as long as it fits your genre and will appeal to your target audience. So in this lesson, the best I can do is to give you some good ideas about kinds of titles you might not have come up with on your own, as well as to indicate some types of titles that I have found especially intriguing.

Perhaps the most unlikely type of fiction title is something that appears to be a nonfiction title but is actually a sly little joke that instead hints at the fictional universe in the book. For example, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. It's not a guide at all, but a story told by an inadvertent arsonist, someone who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house and served time in prison for it.

We've seen a good many other novels in several different genres using this pretense, including Douglas Adams' A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is comic science fiction, and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks, which you might say was "chick lit" before that term existed (i.e., lighthearted contemporary fiction for women).

Are you writing mysteries? A very common pattern in that genre is to use an expression that includes at least one word that has a meaning related to death or killing, where the whole expression sounds portentous and dark. For example, No Rest for the Dead. That's a play on "no rest for the weary," but with the word "dead" in there instead of "weary," it sounds a good deal more final. Similarly, Dead Weight, by TR Ragan. That's an expression we use when there's nothing actually dead, so it gets to have a double meaning in the title of a mystery novel.

Here are two more subtle instances in the mystery genre: Remains of Innocence by JA Jance ("remains" referring to bodily remains as well as more generally to something left behind) and Graveyard of Memories by Barry Eisler (again, "graveyard" indicating both a place where bodies are buried and a place where other things are left behind).

Legal thrillers, political thrillers, medical thrillers, and military action novels often do much the same, but with a different set of words, such as Final Appeal by Lisa Scottoline, a legal thriller, Private Sector by Brian Haig, a political thriller, Syndrome by Thomas Hoover, a medical thriller, and Extreme Measures by Vince Flynn, a military action novel.

Literary fiction often gives us a phrase that seems to have a lot of meaning in it, without anything explicitly suggesting corpses, armies, government, medicine, or the law. Good examples are All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (note the paradox of not being able to see the light, implying there's something symbolic and deep in the novel); The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (since things can't literally have a signature, we again know we're in for a contemplative type of story); and Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, which conveys sophistication by having the format of a painting title, except for the bread crumbs, which would probably be unpaintable and are undoubtedly symbolic of frustratingly insubstantial leftovers.

As for romance novels or women's fiction, what's important is that the words chosen have a soft feeling, apart from their literal meaning. For instance, Summer on Blossom Street by Debbie Macomber. Consider a parallel title I made up, Autumn on Five Cannon Boulevard – no, that wouldn't do at all for a cozy, everything-comes-out-all-right-in-the-end story about love, family, and relationships. We'll talk about tone in a future lesson. It's really, really important for both fiction and nonfiction, and it's a factor that's under the radar for some novice authors and publishers.

Trolling for examples, I looked at Amazon's quirky list of 100 books to read in a lifetime and spotted a lot of simple three- and four-word titles. These are particularly easy to remember: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and many others.

Ditto for my own shelf at the home of favorite classic novels. Not one title is more than four words – Crime and Punishment, The Magic Mountain, The Lost Steps, 1984, The House of Mirth, Lord Jim, A Passage to India.

This apparent popularity of shorter titles makes the longer ones stick out more, including Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which has not only six words but two longer words of three syllables, making it feel even longer than it is.

I looked through a list of just-released children's books, and again any title that was five words or longer really stuck out, such as Have You Seen My Dragon? and The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing.

One pattern for fiction titles I don't want to overlook is a title that's a complete sentence, expressing an attention-getting thought, such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is by Carson McCullers, or The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain.

Fiction titles also sometimes simply bear the name of the main character of a novel, such as V. by Thomas Pynchon or David Copperfield by Dickens.

Then there are novel titles that come from a key image or scene from the book. The Catcher in the Rye comes from a fantasy described by the narrator, Holden Caulfield. Every kid who read that book in high school undoubtedly remembers it, so I won't repeat it. One recent example of this pattern that I particularly liked is A Rule Against Murder, which is a mystery by Louise Penny, involving, as all mysteries do, someone found dead, probably deliberately killed. Here's the relevant dialogue:

"What happened here last night isn't allowed," said Madame Dubois.

It was such an extraordinary thing to say it actually stopped the ravenous Beauvoir from taking another bite of his roast beef on baguette.

"You have a rule against murder?" he asked.

"I do. When my husband and I bought the Bellechasse, we made a deal with the forest. Any death that wasn't natural wasn't allowed. Mice are caught alive and released. Birds are fed in the winter, and even the squirrels and chipmunks are welcome. There's no hunting, not even fishing."

If you have preliminary readers or a writing group, get some help by asking them what scene or image from your novel most sticks in their minds. Maybe there's a title there!

In the next lesson, we'll look at patterns for a book series, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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Marcia Yudkin