In Focus-Magazine

Why Good Titles Count
Tuesday, 02.05.2019, 09:00 AM

Why Good Titles Count

By Christopher Keane

The TITLE can be a real turn off. It can sour the pitch. If a title is boring, tasteless, derivative or forgettable, call it untitled. It will turn out to be a reflection of your general ability to write.

Would you see a movie called Always or Forever or Next Door, A Black Veil for Lisa, or Drifting Souls, or even a very good movie, Somewhere, which Sofia Coppola, who won the Oscar for the screenplay to Lost in Translation.


Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: Titles mean a lot! If you can snag a great one right away, go for it. If not, get as close as you can.

Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find it. It will show up, like the beginning of a great relationship, when you’re least expecting it. It might come out of something a character says, or from that thesaurus you’ve been scouring for days, or you might reshape it from an already existing title.

I found the title for one of my books, Dirty Words, in a conversation with my niece at dinner one night, at an Outback restaurant in Orlando. The story was about plagiarism and she said, “You mean, dirty words. There’s your title.” Just like that.

How about Bad Day at Black Rock? Says it all, doesn’t it? How bad can a bad day at a place called Black Rock be? Exactly. How unforgettable is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? American Beauty. American Psycho. Apocalypto. Snakes on a Plane.

Will the title fit on a movie marquee? Or does it have so many words that they will trail down the building and onto the sidewalk? 

Pearl Harbor. I knew a woman whose name was Pearl Harbor. A father’s cruel joke? An homage to war? She was quite happy about it – proud, in fact -- because nobody ever forgot her. Or how about Gay June Wedding. Yessir, yes, ma’am, her parents named her that.

Here’s how New York Times critic, A. O. Scott, began his review of Pearl Harbor: “The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II has inspired a splendid movie, full of vivid performances and unforgettable scenes, a movie that uses the coming of war as a backdrop for individual stories of love, ambition, heroism and betrayal. The name of that movie is ‘From Here to Eternity.’”

How about Snakes on a Plane? The title bangs you over the head. It sure does. But it says compression. It says terror. It strikes fear into anyone who’s flown. The fear of flying ranks just below the fear of snakes. Pythons in your Toilet. Pirahnas in the Pool.

A boring movie title means, to me at least, that the creators put about as much imagination into it as they did into the rest of the movie. Enormous Changes, a 1983 flick about New York City women, starring Ellen Barkin and Kevin Bacon, was written by the inimitable John Sayles. It could be the worst title ever. “Hey, Bob, have you seen Enormous Changes?”

A title should titillate: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It should perhaps create mystery: The Haunting. It should allude to something about the picture itself, with irony or a double or triple entendre: Dead Wringer. Or how about a title that overstates what it is: Atom Man vs. Superman, or Triumph for the Son of Hercules. Pass the sledgehammer.

A title should suggest some kind of action and intrigue. It should startle. Fight Club. In the dark city, in an underground fight club, a deviant soap salesman entices an overeager insurance adjuster to rule the world. Dirty Pretty Things. Hard to say but says a lot. Black Snake Moan. What? Babel. Babble?

In Psycho, we get exactly that in the person of the Anthony Perkins’ character. Hitchcock loved one word titles. Vertigo, Frenzy, Notorious, Spellbound. They fit on the marquee, they grab you, and notice how each one conjures up a feeling or sense of emotional or psychological danger.

A good title points you in a direction, and guides you toward the center of the movie.

DRILL: What are some of your favorite titles, and why? What was it about those titles that grabbed you? Write down the title and a paragraph or two on what struck you about each one. This exercise might open up a path into creating better titles for your own work.




Chris Keane

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