Writing Lessons: Finding The Idea

Reading & Writing

imagesWriting is like cooking. When you love both, you quickly notice the similarities. They involve assembling the ingredients, tasting the concoction, trying it on friends, offering it to a wider audience. The difference is the imposition of the publisher in the process of writing, who helps to refine the recipe.

But in cooking you don’t have to tell people why they’re going to love the dish. Hooks do that. The high concept hook was invented by Hollywood for its blockbuster movies in the 1970s. It started with ‘Jaws’ and lasted for around twenty years, but now it’s making a comeback…for books. And it’s often in the book’s title, like ‘Girl on a Train’. Mark Gatiss points out that crime novels were once hilariously blunt about their contents, citing 1930s novels like ‘They Called The Police’.

But it does help the writer if they can find the idea and succinctly sum it up. Most of Stephen King’s novels can be neatly summarised in a short sentence. The problem for crime writers is that describing the contents in this way, as if the book is a tin of beans, means that you have to give away the twist. Mysteries involve the slowly revealing of information, therefore it’s the situation that must be concepted, not the solution, and that’s much harder to pull off. By far the best thing about the distinctly average ‘Girl on a Train’ is that it sells a situation to which we can relate.


So what do you do when your book’s set-up is deceptively commonplace but its twists are powerful? Then you must stop getting too bogged down in describing the plot and describe an image from the book instead, so that ‘Low Visibility’, say, could be a good title for a crime that takes place in fog. Sometimes the title comes first, and I think these are the easier books to write.

I’ve finished a stand-alone thriller, and am absolutely stuck for a title. I’ve been thinking about it for more than a year now, watching as books starting with ‘The Girl…’ came and went. But by the time a bandwagon passes you’re already too late to jump on it – it’s better to come up with something that’s true to your work and original to you. It must speak to the reader but not be bland, be original but not off-putting. Communicating a complex idea in a few words is never easy, but you always know when you hit the right one.

7 comments on “Writing Lessons: Finding The Idea”

  1. Jo W says:

    Please be careful with your the title to your new book,Chris. If ever there was a book with a title to get me as far away as possible it’s that one- ‘S’ on a plane. (Why does it always have to be sn…… Doc?)

  2. Terenzio says:

    I’ve always thought Margery Allingham was one of the best writers, from what is commonaly called The Golden Age of Crime Fiction, for coming up with evocative titles for her books. You’ve got Look to the Lady, Dancers in Morning, The Fashion in Shrouds, Police at the Funeral, More Work for the Undertaker (quite good…and the setting in Bloomsbury with an eccentric family is superlative) and my personal favorite Death of a Ghost, which is so appropriate when one thinks about the plot. She definitely had a flair for titles, characterization and creating powerful and memorable settings. In the 1980s Peter Davison was in a wonderful series about the dapper sleuth Albert Campion. When I think of it I can still hear the opening music in my mind sung or to be more precise hummed by Davison. You are right about the difficulty of coming up with a title that won’t give the game away or that is so banal that no one will bother to pick up the book to investigate what it’s all about.

    À bientôt….the one is the gorgeous purple silk dressing gown and cutesy wolfie slippers. I shall retire to the boudior with a cup of excellent Fortnum and Masons’ Afternoon Blend Tea and a couple of Walkers delicious pure butter shortbread cookies, along with a mind improving book on Canaletto (published by the National Gallery).

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Nero Wolfe’s “Some Buried Caesar” was a good one, but I’m a sucker for a classical reference. It was even better that Caesar was a bull. Most of Wolfe’s titles were good. He, by the way, was an author who didn’t know when to stop. He kept the time up to date so that if it was an election year that turned up, but the characters stayed the same. I found it a little nausea making to have Archie Goodwin, aged past sixty, flirting with young women in their twenties. I know, I know, but fans had been reading the books for years and knew how old they were.

  4. Vivienne says:

    Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes, if you want an excellent title. Good book too.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    ‘Hello, He Lied’ by Lynda Obst, an insider book about Hollywood, is a favourite title and it’s a book I’ve not read. Chandler’s ‘The Lady in the Lake’ works for me but it’s not his best book by a long chalk.

    Well if they’ve used up ‘The Girl…’ titles how about ‘Man on a Bus.’? or, ‘Dog in the Park.’? That last one may have some unfortunate other meanings, sorry.


  6. Joel says:

    As a failed writer of considerable experience, with many reject notes and courses / seminars / residential weeks / workshops under my belt, maybe it’s part of the reason I haven’t succeeded yet, setting aside writing quality. I’ve often found titles within my text. Maybe a question a character has asked, or a bit of ‘hooptedoodle’ which as well as deserving to be destroyed, can sometimes survive cut-down into a title. Mixed metaphors work well – a colleague’s favourite is “cast your bread on the waters and some of it will come back buttered”…

  7. Leslie says:

    You have a lovely way with titles, so I’m sure you’ll find something that feels right: Nice, freighted monosyllables, like Full Dark House–each with its own meaning, and wonderfully evocative in different combinations; Plastic–with the same depth and gesture at something more embedded in its simplicity; Sand Men – same, multiplied exponentially; Ten Second Staircase–probably my favorite because again, simple common words but what the *** do they mean put together like that? If all the titles with “The Girl” are getting under your skin, what about flipping it: “Not the [SOMETHING RELEVANT] Girl” Or if the plot twist is what you love, tease the twist in plain sight: “[SOMETHING RELEVANT] Twist.” Because what could be better than complete strangers (who admittedly love your books) throwing random, irrelevant suggestions at you? (And of course there’s “The Incomplete Stranger”–in case there’s a chance it’s relevant.)

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