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)