Looking For Your Story’s Heart?
Try To Write Its Headline

By PJ Parrish

When I was in the newspaper biz, part of my job was writing headlines. Great headline writing is a real art because you have to boil a story into maybe ten words that capture the story’s essence but also lure the reader in.

Great headline writers were the royalty of the copy desk. Or maybe the court jesters. The headline writers I knew were always trying to sneak in puns or a double entendre. My husband, an ex sports editor, still loves to talk about his glory days. When the Houston Oilers practiced without their best wide receiver Warren Wells before their game against the Dolphins, he wrote: OILERS DRILL WITHOUT WELLS. But his classic came when Dolphins cut their tight end Jim Cox:  DOLPHINS WAIVE INJURED COX.

I know, I know…men.

The undisputed all-time best headline award, though, goes to the New York Post, which is infamous for its ability to pull readers into their stories:

A psycho had invaded a Queens after-hours joint, shot the owner to death and then — on learning a female customer was a mortician — ordered her to cut off the victim’s head, which cops later found in the madman’s car. The headline was written by Vincent A. Musetto. In memorializing Musetto after his death, a writer noted that the headline was “as witty as it was horrific, it expressed with unflinching precision the city’s ­accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.”

Which gets me to my point today.  All great stories can be summed up in just a couple words. And if you can’t boil your own story down to a juicy headline, then maybe you don’t really know what your story is about at its heart.

If you’ve ever had to write a concept or produce your own back copy, you know how hard this is. Or if you’ve ever tried to convince an editor at a writers conference to read your manuscript. This is known as “the elevator pitch” — you have to sell an agent your story in time it takes to go up four floors in the hotel elevator.

And when you do get published, it’s useful if you ever find yourself at a book signing and someone asks you, “So, what’s your book about?”

You don’t regurgitate plot. You give them the elevator pitch. And if you can’t answer in three sentences or less, chances are you’ve lost a sale.

Think about advertising. A pithy pitch sells the product. Take the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever,”  which has appeared in every De Beers ad since 1948. Diamonds are inherently worthless. Your ring drops in value 50 percent the moment you leave Zales. But with one slogan De Beers made a diamond into a symbol of wealth and romance. It perfect captures a deep sentiment — a diamond, like your relationship, is eternal.

Coming up with a headline or slogan for your story is a great clarifying exercise. It makes you think beyond mere plot and deep into that sweet spot where story, character and theme mesh.

Okay, enough lecture. Let’s have some fun.

Here is a cool little exercise to get your brain moving to think about story slogans. It was created by screenwriter Nat Ruegger. Take any common advertising slogan, like for Kentucky Fried Chicken or Volvo. Put it into the past tense and make it the first line of your book and see where it takes you.

I struggle coming up with opening paragraphs so I was leery. But I tried this with the Lays Potato Chips slogan — “You Can’t Stop At Just One.” (later changed to “Betcha can’t stop at just one.”)

I couldn’t stop at just one. Believe me, I tried. Maybe it was because I was so hung up on blonde hair, especially when it was braided, falling down a girl’s back like a piece of rope. My first had braided blonde hair. I strangled her with my bare hands, but for all the others after that, I used a yellow rope. I guess because I wanted to get the taste of that first one back again. The first is the most delicious, you see.

I almost went with Nike’s “Just Do It.”  It was inspired by the death row words of murderer Gary Gilmore — “Let’s do it.” Seems to me there’s a good serial killer first-person thriller that opened with “I just did it.”

Then I thought of Taco Bell’s slogan “Head for the Border!” That made me think of consummate storyteller Bruce Springsteen and his song “Highway Patrolman.” It opens with these lyrics:

My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good
Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same comedown
I get a call on the shortwave, Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

The song ends with Joe in squad-car pursuit after his brother, who has stabbed a man and is on the run. I could see a story beginning late in the scene with this line: “He headed for the border.” Here’s how Springsteen ended his song:

Well I chased him through them county roads
Till a sign said Canadian border five miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

One more. I next tried Clairol’s famous slogan “Does She Or Doesn’t She?” (Only her hairdresser knows for sure). It seemed ideal for a cozy set in a hair salon:

Did she or didn’t she? No one would ever really know. Because when Marcel Marseau, the owner of the chi-chi Palm Beach salon To Dye For, was found floating in the water hazard of the  17th hole of the Everglades Golf Course, we all suspected Lily Van Pulletzer.  But then her body was found stuffed in the butler’s pantry at Mar-a-Lago, and I knew this was going to be the toughest case of my career. 

Okay, now you see why I don’t write humor. But you get the point. A great slogan can get your motor running when you’re stuck in neutral. And maybe if you can write a great slogan or headline for your story, you can figure out what you are really trying to say.

Now it’s your turn. Think of a good slogan and put it in the past tense. Pick first person or third and give us a great opening paragraph to a fabulous crime story. Here’s a list of slogans you can use or come up with your own. I’ve switched the slogans to past tense.

It kept going…and going…and going. Energizer batteries always make me think of The Tell-Tale heart.

Every kiss Began With Kay. Nice start for a romance?

American By Birth, A Rebel By Choice. I love this one by Harley Davidson. I’d change it to “She was American by birth, a rebel by choice” to introduce a vigilante heroine maybe.

There Was No Tomorrow. Past tense and Fedex becomes dystopian YA.

It was the happiest place on earth. (Disneyland) And of course, it was really hell on earth.

What happened there, stayed there. (Las Vegas)

Sometimes he felt like a nut. Sometimes she didn’t. (Almond Joy)


This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

31 thoughts on “Looking For Your Story’s Heart?
Try To Write Its Headline

  1. There she was, Miss America, lying on the beach minus her coronation gown. She had been crowned only an hour earlier. First thing I did was dispatch the gang of tabloid reporters swooping like seagulls, snapping photos of the body and tiara clutched in the victim’s hand.
    “Have you no decency?” I called after them. Did no good. Within 30 minutes, the front-page headline of The Atlantic City Confidential screamed, “Miss America All Washed Up!”

  2. Love the idea of playing with a slogan to jumpstart the story. Writing a headline or pitch for a story is hard. More than once I’ve sat down to practice that exercise and come away with “Nope, you don’t know your story well enough yet.”

    • Been there, not done that, right with you BK. It’s hard even when you do have a firm grasp on your story. Once I was asked by editors when I was with Simon & Schuster to help write the back copy. Was the hardest writing I did for that darn book.

      • As an indie author, I totally agree. At this point in my WIP (32K words in), I don’t even have a title.

        As I was reading this post, I couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of something from who knows how many decades ago. College football star, Joe Peters, was injured and couldn’t make the big game. Headline: “[name of team] to play with Peters out.”

        • 🙂
          That beats my football headline. I remember back in the 70s, one guy on our copy desk snuck this headline into the society pages (yeah we still had them):

          Balls, Balls, Balls Debs Get Their Fill Of Them

  3. George Carlin used to whole routines stringing ad-slogans together in coherent sentences… of course, his folks worked in advertising, so he sorta had a head start there…

    Also, country music songwriters do this a lot – sometimes pretty successfully (Toby Keith – “Stays in Mexico” – “What happens down in Mexico/Stays in Mexico…” || Kenny Chesney’s “You Had Me at Hello” – granted, a line from a movie, but in the same vein…)

    Well, to get to the “challenge” at hand…
    I absolutely, positively had to be there overnight, so I put myself in the driver’s seat and headed for the mountains. As I climbed higher, I noticed headlights in my rear-view mirror rapidly closing on my bumper. They followed me into the passing lane as I moved over, close enough now that I couldn’t see them over my trunk lid.

    (Old-school FedEx and Hertz; semi-current Coors and Delta Airlines)

    • Oh yeah. Country music…best “headline” lyrics ever! And I like your story’s start. It’s odd how well this little exercise works for starting a story. (Is there a body in your trunk?)

    • It’s not from slogans, per se, but I love the word play in country songs, like King George’s “Nobody in his Right mind would’ve Left her.”

  4. Finger lickin’ good. A month ago, he never would have imagined that would be his reaction to wild muskrat, but after three days with nothing in his traps, any meat at all tasted like gourmet cuisine. There were other animals on this godforsaken island, but the furry little rodent was the only one stupid enough so far to take the bait in his simple pit trap, the schematics of which he barely remembered from his days in Boy Scouts. At least he paid attention when they taught his troop how to make fire with just a couple of sticks and some dry leaves. He was hungry, but not enough to choke down the little bastard raw. With a nice flame going, and the salt he salvaged from the hull of The Bella Donna, at least he could have it his way.

  5. Kristee, this is a great post! You sent me on a hunt for more information on loglines, etc. Found a website on how to write them for screenplays. So, here’s my novice attempt at a paragraph. (You might recognize the Burger King slogan…)

    I had it my way.
    Always had, ever since I was nine years old and living in the cabin with Mr. Sparks. Before I was nine, he always had it his way. Then I got bigger.
    I can’t remember how I got there, but I left on my own terms when I was fifteen. Mr. Sparks didn’t come with me. I left him there, sitting in his broken-down, musty armchair, facing the cold fireplace with a neat round hole in his forehead.
    I took one last look at him, liked it, threw my pack on my back, and walked out, leaving the cabin door open so the critters could have dinner later.
    I knew right where I needed to go.

    • I love this! As James always tells us, plop us down right in the center of an action scene and explain later. I like the fact you didn’t show him shooting the old guy “on camera.” We didn’t need to see it. Our imaginations fill in the gaps. I am seeing an abused kid who was held captive by this evil reprobate and finally had enough. I would eagerly follow his journey after that because you end the scene with “I knew where I needed to go.” Well done.

      • Thanks for your encouragement, Kristy (spelled your name right this time…)!

        I don’t have any story to go with this opening, just wrote it on the fly. However, I went for a walk in the orchard just now with the man and the dog, and it occurred to me that it just might fit with another WIP, as one MC’s childhood trauma. Yeah, it would definitely tell the reader why he is how he is…

        Or, maybe he needs his own novel. We shall see.

        Thanks again for this idea to “Spark” an opening… 🙂

  6. Hilarious blog! I’m a recovering newspaper reporter and remember the days when the copy desk would post their favorite headlines on the wall. Here’s one that didn’t make it into the newspaper’s food section: EASTER BREAD — IT IS RISEN!

    • Aw man! That’s a great headline. I would have okayed it without pause. But I guess you’d get letters from the religious folk. 🙂

  7. For some reason I jumped back to my childhood, when cigarette ads were everywhere. The first one I thought of gave me this:

    Winston tasted good, like a census taker should. Went splendidly with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

    • Ha! Read recently that in the book, Thomas Harris wrote he had fava beans and “a big Amarone”. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well…

  8. I have sat and thought, gardened and thought, cooked and thought, and no matter what I’ve tried I’ve been stalled on my book and haven’t been able to figure out why. I mean, the first draft is finished so how come I’m not diving into the second? Then with your suggestion of writing a headline to find the heart of the story, it was like a thousand (okay, maybe only a hundred) little light bulbs went off in my brain as I wrote one headline after another. I now have a new title and a stronger thread for the book’s theme. Thank you for an excellent suggestion.

    • Oh, Laurie, you made my day. Good luck with the book and digging out that theme! (And yeah, I write a lot of scenes when I garden, too).

  9. He took it off. He took it all off. And with such grace and speed! It seemed like only a few minutes before the house was stripped of all paint.

    • You tease. I was thinking of Jamie in “Outlander” slipping out of his kilt.

  10. I should have not read this before starting work, lol. I won’t get anything done today after reading this.

    Such a great post!

    I already have about six beginning with “Stir up the Campbell’s, Soup is Good Food” to “Let’s get Mikey”, “He hates Everything.”

    Thanks for such an enjoyable post!

    • Love the Mikey hates everything prompt. A couple good plots immediately came to mind. 🙂

  11. P.J. what thoughtful thoughts for a blue day in South Alabama. But thanks all the same; something never crossed my mind before now.

  12. Love these headlines! Your husband must be a riot, Kris.

    This post is so timely, too. Yesterday, I wrote my tagline for my new true crime series that’s on submission. “Breathing new life into dead serial killers.”

    • Husband just reminded me that when Luis Aparichio got traded from Chicago White Sox to Boston, he wrote the headline:

      Aparchio Changes Sox.

Comments are closed.