Contents


Titles

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Titles

An intriguing attention-grabbing title will whet the appetite of an agent, publisher or producer and put them in a receptive frame of mind when they start reading your work. 

Title types

Broadly speaking there are three kinds of title:

Descriptive
Abstract
Cryptic

The following examples are from movies, but the same rules apply to titles in any media.

Descriptive titles

Titles that give you enough information to take a good guess at the subject and genre:

Dumb and Dumber. We know this story must involve two idiots; one more idiotic than the other. The title also strongly suggests it’s a comedy.

An American Werewolf in London. Does what it says. You can’t get much clearer that this.

Big Trouble in Little China. Sounds like an action story and we might guess it’s set in the Chinese district of a large city.

Abstract titles

Vague and largely meaningless, but attention grabbing:

There Will Be Blood. Featuring blood obviously, but beyond the fact that it threatens violence we’re none the wiser. Could it be about vampires?

The Big Sleep. No clues here unless we know this phrase is a euphemism for death, and even then we’re left wondering.

Blazing Saddles. Something about horse racing?

Cryptic titles

Titles whose meanings are hidden until we see the movie:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A mystery till we find out these labels describe the three protagonists.

The Day of the Jackal. Possibly a wildlife documentary, but ‘Jackal’ turns out to be the codename of an assassin.

Blade Runner. Means nothing till we discover this is futuristic slang for a replicant hunter. (This title originally belonged to a story about a man selling illegal surgical equipment.)

Effective titles

As you can see from the above an effective title will include one or both of the following elements:

At least one powerful key word that arouses interest and excitement: Blood, Ugly, Jackal, Blade, Blazing, Werewolf, Trouble.

An intriguing combination of words: Big/Sleep, Blazing/Saddles, Blade/Runner, Day/Jackal, Big/Little.

How many of your favourite titles fall into one or both of the above categories? Take a look at the Random Book Title Generator (www.kitt.net/php/title.php). It’s a fun site and not meant to be taken seriously but you’ll find that any of the half decent titles the generator throws up will follow the rules laid out above.

Title tips

If you sell the rights to your script or novel you may have little say in the title it ends up with. In most cases signing a contract also means signing away the right to make marketing decisions and this includes title choice. However, when choosing a title you should consider the following, especially if you’re self publishing:

Keep it real

Your title shouldn’t make promises your story can’t keep. If you write a novel about a middle-aged woodworker having a romance with the widow of his best friend, the text would have to be pretty raunchy to live up to a title like Nails of Lust or Hammer Me Hard. Something more sedate and romantic such as The Chair I Made for Katie or Carpentry With Flowers would be more appropriate.

Make it memorable

Titles comprising short, simple, everyday words are the easiest to recall and it helps if they also conjure up a mental image to cement it in the memory.

Can you say it?

Word of mouth recommendations work best when people can actually pronounce a title. Avoid tongue-twisters and hard to say words. How about Mrs Miller’s Pteridomania, Renumbered Remunerations or The Kyrgiakis Convention?

How will it look?

Not so much an issue on a movie poster or theatre playbill, but the cover of a paperback offers limited space for a designer to work with. How would a title like Incontrovertible Spiritualization appear on a book cover? If both words were put on one line the text would have to be tiny or very compressed to make it fit. Putting the words on separate lines does something to solve the problem but creates an ugly slab of verbiage. This is another reason to choose short simple words — they offer a designer more creative freedom in how they’re arranged.

Do it later

If you can’t decide on a title at the outset, leave it and see if a name suggests itself during writing. An appropriate title will often leap out at you when you least expect it.

Famous name changes

Don’t worry if your title ideas don’t fit the bill; keep trying, even the best writers can have trouble coming up with something suitable:

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind went through numerous title changes: Tomorrow is Another Day, Tote The Weary Load, Milestones, Jettison, Ba! Ba! Blacksheep, None So Blind, Not In Our Stars and Bugles Sang True.

Peter Benchley’s best seller started life as The Stillness in the Water then became The Summer of the Shark and The Terror of the Monster ending up as The Jaws of the Leviathan before finally slimming down to Jaws.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Incident at West Egg morphed through Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires to Trimalchio, Trimalchio in West Egg, On the Road to West Egg, Gold-hatted Gatsby, The High-Bouncing Lover and Under the Red White and Blue to eventually settle on The Great Gatsby.

Is it similar to anything else?
Once you’ve decided on a title do a little research and see if it or a similar name has already been used. If it’s a book take a look at websites such as Amazon and AbeBooks; if it’s a movie try the Internet Movie Database. Titles can’t be copyrighted but if someone else has used a similar name for their work there’s a possibility of confusion. Did you enjoy Hard Times? Which one? The Dickens novel or the bare-knuckle boxing movie starring Charles Bronson?

Original titles of famous movies

Star Beast became Alien
3000 became Pretty Woman
The Contender became Rocky
Black Mask became Pulp Fiction
Comfort Food became American Pie
Dangerous Days became Blade Runner
The Cut-Whore Killings became Unforgiven
Head Cheese became The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
There's Something About Sarah became There's Something About Mary

Original titles of famous books

Catch 18 became Catch 22
Mag’s Diversions became David Copperfield
First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice
Strangers from Within became Lord of the Flies
All’s Well That Ends Well became War and Peace
The Sea-Cook became Treasure Island
The Chronic Argonauts became The Time Machine
Something That Happened became Of Mice and Men
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls

The first edition of Robinson Crusoe was sub-titled: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates. But at least you knew what you were getting.


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