Titles, opening lines, and endings

titlesI have the tendency to obsess about stuff that doesn’t really matter, such as titles, opening lines, and endings. Or do they matter?

Let’s see.

There are a few books whose titles I consider to be brilliant (this might just be about personal preferences so…), such as:

  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  • Darkness at Noon
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • The History of Love

Now, it’s obvious that a title can pique a reader’s interest enough so they actually open the book and try to read it. A great cover, an intriguing blurb, and a title that says something. I like titles that say something, even though I often choose for my own stories and novels simple titles (which is contradictory.)

My opinion?

A title is just a title. It doesn’t change the way a reader will feel about your book after he reads it. Yes, an interesting title is as good a marketing ploy as any other, but it’s not crucial to the overall reading experience.

It’s funny that sometimes I come up with a title for a story almost instantly. I’d say it’s the first thing that comes to mind, in that strange flood of scenes and information that comes when I get a new idea. And other times, it just won’t come. I try out different titles, but nothing sounds right. I have a story, and characters, and stuff happening, but I just don’t have a name for it. That’s when I put my thinking cap on and try not to come up with an idiotic title. That’s also when I usually come up with a really simple title, like The Writer, or Jazz, or The Sea.

Now, about opening lines. I wrote a blog post about some of my favorite opening lines a while ago. And, yes, I’m obsessed about opening lines. I think that a good opening line can make or break a novel. It only takes a couple of words for a reader to stop. Just like that. No questions asked.

Sometimes I go for some really smart openings, like I tried to do in virtually every single chapter of The Writer. Other times I just go for a different effect: I want to make the reader as if he’s just interrupted something. Just throw him into the middle of a scene, and see what happens after that.

I don’t know if my obsession with opening lines is healthy or not, if it’s that important or not, if all the brilliant opening lines are brilliant only because the books themselves are brilliant.

Somehow, a bad novel with a great opening is just a bad novel. But a great novel almost always deserves a great opening line. Something that would be used to characterize the entire book. Think Lolita, as an example of that. Or Notes from the Underground.

But what about endings?

Well, there are some endings that we’ll never be able to forget. The one from The Great Gatsby is, in my humble opinion, of the most memorable ending lines.

I’m not talking about how to end a novel, but about the ending lines, the last paragraph. Is it just as important as the opening line? Do you get to reveal something important just then? Or end it with a question?

There are quite a lot of possibilities.

Just like I said about opening lines, even a brilliant ending line won’t chance anything about an awful story.

I once read that you should build up words within sentences, and sentences within paragraphs, and paragraphs within chapters, and chapters within the novel, in such a way that the very best comes at the very end. The center of attention is always towards the end. Or something like that.

If that’s so, then the ending line should always deliver a powerful punch. It should feel like an epiphany, even though the writer doesn’t really reveal much.

Don’t know. You tell me, if any of these elements are important, and how do you feel about titles, opening lines, and ending lines.


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56 comments on “Titles, opening lines, and endings

  1. beckony says:

    All of my stories/novels live in my head by their protagonists’ names. I don’t know how I’d get any writing done otherwise.

  2. Good stuff here. Thanks.

  3. hearabout says:

    I decide to buy a book is by reading the last sentence. Last sentence of my current book: “Tomorrow.”
    The one I am going to read next: “And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

    It matters. It matters a lot.

  4. Papparaci says:

    Interesting post. I believe the title and the opening paragraph must hook me in, or else the writer risks losing possible fans.

  5. I so agree with you about the Great Gatsby ending – those last words are haunting and completely sum up the theme and trajectory of the whole novel (which in itself was a masterpiece of course). I also love the opening lines of Anna Karenina, and of course, Pride and Prejudice. So sometimes i think there is a real art in this and real additional value…but I agree that nothing in the beginning or end will make up for a lack lustre middle. :).

  6. “Jazz”, as a title, was very interesting. That title, as well as the snazzy cover, hooked me. I like titles that hook and tell. Not to shamelessly plug my own work but I chose the titles of my first novel “An Ode for Orchids” and my second novel “Fourteen Pages” to hook readers by telling them what the book was about in an interesting way. Titles, first lines, and ending lines definitely matter.

  7. intheAMDay says:

    Cool post, Cristian! I agree with Papparaci. For me the beginning must hook…but it might be worth doing what Hearabout says and read that last sentence first and decide reading worthiness based on that. Hmm…

  8. Titles & covers. As a self – published author, you don’t have the same resorces as someone with a publishing house behind them. Marketing is all on your shoulders. Covers catch the buyer’s eye, presentation is key. Color theory is important here. Imagery, as well. Certain titles, will intrigue buyers more than others. Please do not underestimate marketing in your process. There are a lot of artists & graphic designers out there. Some are struggling to get their work out there, as much as authors. Perhaps, it is something to explore & to tap into. The internet has given artists an amazing opportunity for collaboration.

    • Ditsy Mae says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with you! It would seem in the world if self publishing that the title and cover would be a vital marketing tool. I know several artists that are highly talented and have no outlet for their work. This would be an excellent way to get both artist and author some exposure.

  9. avwalters says:

    Though language is equally important in opening or ending lines, I think the writer also needs to focus on the image that it conveys. I like to open my books with an image to which the reader can relate and to close on an image that carries a deeper meaning for that scene, and for the story generally.

  10. Best last line ever: It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done. And it is a far, far better rest I go to, than that I have ever known.

    Name that book… :)

  11. Hm, very true, very true. A wonderful or creepy ending can stick in your mind for days.

  12. I make up a lot of titles between my art work and my poetry. Sometimes just functional (Lady Holding a Cat, for instance) and sometimes I don’t know where it came from (How Can Dinner Be Ready When It’s Still on the Stove?). I really enjoy making up a title.

    One book title that made me read the book – Black Rubber Dress, by Lauren Henderson. Leaped right out at me from the shelf.

  13. To me a title is pivotal to the marketability of a book. I have had endless arguments with my publishers, at times, over what constitutes the best title for that reason. By contract the publisher has the right to title a book – and for this very reason, marketability.

    Once, that led to my being absolutely abused by a reviewer who took a publisher-imposed title and used it to ‘prove’ that my book had huge omissions in it. Specious and pathetic, and the real problem was that he was writing books that competed with mine in the marketplace. But it happened.

    Covers count, too.

    I agree about opening and closing lines making a book, providing it’s a good book in the first place. To me, the master was Arthur C. Clarke, whose ability to provide a closing, provocative and amazing punch at the end was pure legend.

  14. offlogic says:

    Greatest opening line? My favorite is “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon.
    Best opening page? Well, I’m partial to Neil Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because it so sets the tone for the whole book.

  15. I think all these elements are very important. When I put an idea for a novel or a series down on my Ideas list, I start with the working title, and if I can’t figure that out, I can’t write the short summary. The last idea I had, I struggled with a name until I read a line by an Indian guru, and from there not only did the title and the summary flow, but the story was tweaked to match the title, and it got interesting after that.
    For opening lines, I try to put the readers right into the story. They connect immediately to the scene, feeling like they are in a movie. Unless I do that somehow, I don’t feel like I’m doing my job.
    And for endings, I try and end the story so that it leaves the reader going “Whoa!” Like with my serial killer novel, I tried to make it seem like the main character might have to take up killing again (and I do plan on a sequel, in a few years). It’s one of my favorite ending lines, and I’m proud to have written it.

  16. Delilah says:

    Finally, someone who has read Notes From the Underground. The reason I even bothered to pick that book up was because of the title. I will say that I have read books which I absolutely loved, but the opening line was only so-so. I will usually give them at least a paragraph or two before I put the book back on the shelf.

  17. JAHirsch says:

    Opening lines are my favorite. It sets the scene for the entire book, so it has to start it off right. My favorite first sentence ever is: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice,” from One Hundred Years of Solitude (also a brilliant title now that I think about it).

    • Brilliant title, brilliant opening line, and brilliant novel.

      By the way, G.G. Marquez does come up with some catchy titles for his books. I don’t know how I missed him, but most of his titles are really cool, like The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, or Love in the Time of Cholera.

  18. Diana says:

    Like very much.:)
    Too many thoughts to process, but I think about these things a lot. And I’m not even involved with words. :)

    But having to title posts everyday does bring it around, a lot.

  19. coyotero2112 says:

    “Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo – what a nowhere title – has an opening scene in which a young kid and some confederates rush the turnstyles of the 1954 playoff game between Brookly Dodgers and New York Giants, then to avoid detection gets lost in the crowd where the story takes place. Talk about rushing the reader into a short story…used that in nearly every writing class.

  20. Nice post. As you say, the title and blurb aren’t really important after the book has been read, but they can be highly important in getting sales in the first place. A memorable title also helps to get word-of-mouth recommendations. A stellar ending can help to create buzz (among people talking about how awesome the ending was). Thanks for sharing this.

  21. Great topic as I think about it often. You could even include songs in here. I believe the song title is most important. But if the melody or lyrics are crap, it won’t matter. And if all else if good, but the end is not great, you will still enjoy it but wish it ended differently.

    It also equates to blogs/articles. I truly enjoy finding creative titles to my articles however, I suppose I could get more hits by using titles that are better with SEO’s. Even with that knowledge I choose to write the way I want to write and they way I think will be better for the reader, not the search engine.

  22. kcharbneau says:

    Love the article. I totally relate to obsessing over the first lines in a book. I think it can make or break the attention of your reader.

  23. I loved Didion’s “Blue Nights” which has a very generic title; “The Year of Magical Thinking” which is much more dramatic, did nothing for me.

    Opening lines are what do it for me more than anything. I liked this post — I find what gets me more tricked up than anything is the fact that I start fearing road trips and author interviews. I don’t want to do any of that, so then I freak and I don’t write.

    I’m getting better though. Being in the moment helps so much as does remembering that our time here is finite.

  24. Piscis says:

    All are stand-out elements, and thus of elevated importance. The title because it’s the most prominent aspect of the work’s identity, and the opening/ending lines because they are extremes – first and last impressions. Can they make or break a book? Not really, but they have the most abstract power, and are certainly worth the extra attention to get right.

  25. harveycd says:

    I think these are probably the three most important things (after the story that is!). I see books with terrible titles and will not pick them up. The first line gets you into the book and the last line is your final impression so they need to be right. When I write I take ages deliberating how to start. Quite often an end line shoots into my head about half way though and I have to write it down. It also gives me something to build towards, sometimes less is more. I once wrote a line then carried on writing for two paragraphs, in the edit I deleted the two extra paragraphs because they did not add much to the story and line before them was so powerful it needed to end there.

  26. I believe titles and cover images go hand in hand in intriguing readers to open the book and read further. For my book, “Solitary Desire” I tried to instill mystery in the opening lines, from which to tell the story, and keep the reader wanting to know more. It’s a delicate (marketing) balance – title, opening, closing but needs to keep the integrity of the author as well.

  27. Rasma R says:

    I’ve always loved Hemingway’s choice From Here to Eternity and the opening of David Copperfield – I am born. Writing is a fascinating world. You have chosen well. Enjoyed.

  28. Titles – the perennial problem for the visual artist too. They can influence the way someone views an artwork, approaches a book. And finishing a work – that last flourish, that final mark.

  29. I think you have a good point. A good beginning will make you want to read the whole book – will involve you so deeply that you absolutely have to read until the end. We have a table at work where people leave books they’ve read for others to read. I picked up one such book and was so hooked by the opening of the book that I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t a style of book I would normally choose to read at all but this writer had me from beginning to end.
    There is nothing worse than being hooked by a book only to find it comes to a disappointing or weak end. The time and investment that you’ve put into reading it becomes a waste. I want to read books that capture my imagination, give me something to think about in a moral or life learning sense and take me to another place. I love your idea of writing a book where someone happens accidentally upon scene and is captured by it. I hope you write it!

  30. Tongue Sandwich™ says:

    I think what you say about the importance of titles, opening lines and endings does not only apply to books but to blog posts as well, and for precisely the same reasons. More often than not, I spend about as much time on these three issues as on the entire article, and I happen to believe that it pays off.
    “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Lewis Carroll

  31. I have to admit to being sucked in by titles, also by cover art. I will, however, pick up said book and actually give it a little read (at least the synopsis of it) and make my decision from there. Yet I know getting me to pick it up is (more than) half the battle. To me, the ending lines really stick with me. If I’ve actually made it that far, and the book has impacted me, it means that much more.

  32. mummyshymz says:

    I choose books to read based on the title, the blurb and the opening paragraph :) so yes, a catchy title does draw me in.

  33. My absolute favorite opening line is Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel García Márquez.

  34. halo of flies says:

    A title, cover and opening line of any piece of literary work, has similar importance to say, the cover, title and first track of a recording. It sets the whole work up as either a spectacular success or failure. We all know deep down that it should be insignificant: that content is everything. But on how many occasions do we find ourselves being influenced by, and immediate impressions made by, those very same things we know need less emphasis placed upon. That sounds like a reasonably sound argument with direction doesn’t it? The truth is, it is absolutely something that needs to be obsessed over. I have wanted to be a writer for a very long time, but, and here is where it gets weird, I find it almost impossible to start any work, simply due to the fact that I obsess over the ultimate title, or that killer first line. So I have never done anything. If I could just write, nothing else but let thoughts and words flow, I would be the better for it. Or perhaps it is the secret creatives worlds’ way of telling me to give up loser. Maybe we need to just acknowledge that on many levels the almost impossibly difficult act of defining and framing a beginning, is of utmost importance – and then turn around and give it the bird.

  35. I can be really seduced by a cover’s artwork (in a bookshop, it has to stand out !).

  36. rjmackin says:

    “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”. Beckett’s Murphy. Genius opening line!

  37. Barb Winters says:

    These are all important. There is no takeaway to a piece if you can’t entice someone to read it. Another important element: the book cover. I work at a library and am attracted to certain books because of the cover.

  38. rgayer55 says:

    As a humor writer, I think I do better with titles than opening lines or endings. Many of my short stories evolved from a single funny moment or idea that later became the title.

  39. Craig says:

    My ears perked up at Heart of Darkness. This is, for me one of the all time greats. I love titles and will even write them on my canvases like Frida Khalo did to such poetic effect. The best part of creating a piece of writing or art, for me, is to dream up a title that encapsulates, contains within it, the theme of the book in a word or two. It has to do with the interpenetration of large and small scale, micro and macrocosm. Conrad expresses this inter-relationship beautifuly in his symbolist novella of evil. I highly recommend The Secret Sharer also.

  40. Most titles for books may be settled on by their authors, but that isn’t the case with other forms of writing at all. For example, I understand that newspapers articles have their titles and subtitles penned by editors as often, if not more so, than by the writers themselves. Even with books, sometimes titles are the decisions of publishers, editors, or agents rather than the authors. This may be particular true with a book published internationally where an title may change as it crosses borders.

  41. tomspeelman says:

    I tend to think of titles first. The story comes after.

  42. gracesorrow says:

    A title may pique some interest, but I will always turn to the flyleaf for a glimpse of the story, or the back cover, if that’s where it can be found. I love a great opening line, but I have read wonderful books that didn’t hook me that early- I always try to give a story the benefit of the doubt. After all, my own life story starts with a boring opening line, but there’s a richness to be found if one probes deeper. Endings are important to me, though. I love a story that ends well, even if I’m left with questions, even if there’s no epiphany, even when I close the book with just a gentle sigh. Truth be told, I think that a well crafted story can have a lame title, a less-than-engaging opening line, and a simple finish. My story has my name for a title- the opening line is, “I was born in a hospital in North Carolina on a September morning,” and I imagine that the ending will be as simple and final as, “and then I died.” All that said, the meaning is in the telling, how it unfolds, flows and ebbs, the triumphs and tragedies sprinkled throughout.

  43. katyhancock says:

    I’m partial to an unassuming first line with a knockout ending line. I never set much in store for titles, they don’t offer any substance for me.

  44. Good Evening: I have read one novel that for the first 651 pages seemed like one of the greatest unjustly forgotten novels in history, no exaggeration. The Octopus, by Frank Norris. The final two page (no, just four paragraphs) almost completely ruin the rest of the book. Astonishing, really. If you read The Octopus and stop at the paragraph ending, “Was evil thus to be strong and to prevail? Was nothing left?” you will think that you have read one of the greatest books ever. If you read the remaining four paragraphs, you will endure huge disappointment. Funny thing about novels; given how long they are, they still remain intolerant of mistakes. Vonn Scott Bair

  45. womandrogyne says:

    I think Alan Garner writes the most amazing last sentences, they drop you very suddenly back into the mundane world – apart from The Moon of Gomrath, which has the most amazing last paragraph I know:

    “The horsemen climbed from the hillside to the air, growing vast in the sky, and to meet them came nine women, their hair like wind. And away they rode together across the night, over the waves, and beyond the isles, and the Old Magic was free forever, and the moon was new.”

    (It may not be your cup of tea, but it makes my hair stand on end.) As for titles, I went through a phase of wandering through my local library, picking out novels on spec based on them having mind-catching titles. This led me to The Lost Musicians, a Faroese novel by Heinesen, and Russell Hoban’s novels via The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. Which led me to Riddley Walker, which also has one of the best endings ever (and is one of the best books in 20th century literature, I think).

  46. The History of Love may well be one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter also ranks highly for me. John Irving is my favourite modern day author because he is the master of endings. I think the title is the hook, the opening draws you in but it is the ending that resonates with you.

  47. bohemianopus says:

    The problem I have is that I will drain my brain until I come up with a title I like. Then, when I “google” my idea to make sure it hasn’t already been done, about a bazillion links appear with the exact same title.

  48. icelandpenny says:

    (Also… thanks for following my blog!) I like this post, remember liking your earlier post focused on opening lines (I think I commented with my own love of the opening sentence for Cien Anos de Soledad). For me, the thing about an ending is that it should both stop and finish the piece of writing in a satisfying way at the right moment. A wise, amusing, ageing scholar at a Learned Society conference I attended began his presentation by saying: “There is a difference between stopping and finishing. A frustrating few stop before they have finished. Far too many finish long before they stop. Ladies and gentlemen, I shall endeavour to stop and finish at the same time.”

  49. Wanderer says:

    Coming up with titles (and opening lines that pack a punch) is always the most difficult for me! Although, since I lean towards fantasy, it’s hard to come up with a title that is simple and not idiotic sounding. All of my drafts are saved under what they are or the first line of the piece. I usually save the title for last.

  50. rosanalinda says:

    1 title 2 blurb 3 opening line 4 first couple of pages.

  51. I’m not a fiction writer, but I have some thoughts. The opening line needs to catch your attention and keep you reading. I think as the writing continues we have have to be careful not to reveal too much. The book–story needs to be building suspense all the time to keep the reader reading. One thing I hate in a book: long drawn out, detailed discriptions–of a person or a place. That’s boring. I think the writing should make the reader guess. Don’t give it all away. Every book should be a mistery. And then the climax should be at the end. Nobody want to continue reading after the climax.

  52. 90vinitablog says:

    Title helps in grabbing the eye-balls. Now when it comes to opening line, usually no one understands what is happening when we actually start reading a novel. Atleast (I) revisit the first line twice, so it doesn’t really matter that much….The trick would be to start dialogues between the characters in first few pages so the reader catches the interest…….(absolutely opinionated comment)

  53. artemistic says:

    there is a book by cecelia ahern name “the book of tomorrow”..
    the main reason i picked up the book was its opening line “it is said that a story loses something with each telling” although the book wasn’t half gripping and i didn’t even read till the end, that opening line is still stuck with me for some reason :)

  54. simon7banks says:

    It’s often said of job interviews that the main thing is to start well and end well. That’s what people will remember. Starting includes how you look when you enter the room and your body language.

    Books are much the same, though of course in many situations you see the cover as soon as you see the title. That’s how I started on David Brin’s “Uplift” SF series with “Startide Rising” – a good title but a good cover too.

    But some people look for the obvious in the title (for example, a gangster story with a lot of violent action would have a violent title). I prefer titles that aren’t obvious (like “The Turn of the Screw”) because they intrigue me.

    As for endings, the best I know is in William Golding’s “Pincher Martin”:

    “He didn’t even have time to get his seaboots off”. That’s because it overturns your entire appreciation of what has been going on.

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