I just finished the first draft a new short story about a young woman who misses out on the Summer of Love because she has to edit her ailing Dad’s grade-Z monster movie. It’ll be some time before the story is submission-ready, but I already love my title: “The Vampire Lizards of Doctor X“.
That got me thinking about the importance of the title in fiction writing.
From Terry Rossio:
Ted and I were listening to a pitch once from a friend of ours, Ron, an aspiring filmmaker. He had an idea that was pretty good. Really good, in fact — we could tell because we were both getting that slightly jealous “I wish I’d thought of that” feeling. Where you start coming up with your own cool ways to execute the idea, as if it were yours. “So, what’s the title?” I asked.
“I really, really like the title,” Ron said. He took a breath and proclaimed with great relish, “It’s called SILLY GOOSE.”
Ted and I looked at each other. Imagine the high-pitched cartoon sound of something plummeting earthward from a great height. We’d felt we’d been standing on solid creative ground, but then looked down and saw there was nothing beneath us. We knew his promising concept would be dead in the water as long as it was saddled with that title.
Titles can do many things. They can promise. A novel called The Old Man and The Sea will presumably contain both. Alice will presumably at some point be in Wonderland. And in Death of A Salesman it’s probably advisable not to get too attached to the salesman. (One of the manifold problems with the movie Monster A-Go-Go is that the movie lacks both a monster and a-go-go.) Titles can also inspire wonder. Written on the Body could be about a lot of things, but it’s suggestive of sensuality. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” provokes both terror and curiosity, because it’s hard to know how literally we should take it. A Long Days Journey Into Night lets me know someone’s heading toward a reckoning, or toward oblivion, and the balance of opposites lends intrigue. Slaughterhouse Five implies institutionalized mass murder, while The Spy Who Came In From the Cold makes us think about everything coming in from the cold could mean: getting out of the cold war, out of the cold world…
So getting the title right is key. It’s the key to being remembered. It’s the key to word-of-mouth. Until you’ve got one, you’re not ready to write, and once you’ve got a good one, you have to kill yourself to make the rest of the pieces as good as the title.
As a final illustration of the power of a title, do the following exercise:
Imagine you’ve been given an assignment and have to write a screenplay, based solely on an assigned title. Forget the actual films the following titles represent. Actually try to imagine the sort of film you’d write if you sat down and worked from the following: BACK TO THE FUTURE, GHOSTBUSTERS, FLATLINERS, BODY HEAT, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RISKY BUSINESS, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, TRUE LIES, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
Man, if you had any of these titles, you’d have no choice. You’d be forced to write a classic film!
What are your favorite titles? What do they make you think about? If you write, what’s the best title you’ve ever written? Play in comments. That’s what they’re for.