Coming up with a great movie title can be challenging, so here are some ideas for how to create an intriguing and compelling title. Try one of the following:
- A hint
- An emotion
- A contradiction
- A place or time
- An action or event
- A group or organization
- One or more character names
Since titles advertise what your screenplay is about, you might think that the simplest title would be the obvious one. However, obvious titles don’t leave room for imagination, and you want a title that intrigues potential audiences, not give the whole story away. That’s why many titles hint at what the story is about.
“The Blind Side” indirectly describes the hero’s purpose in football, which is to protect the quarterback’s blind side.
“Beauty and the Beast” is about a woman who falls in love with a monster, who is really an enchanted prince held prisoner under a magic spell.
“The Sixth Sense” is about a boy who has a sixth sense that lets him see dead people. Although the title doesn’t suggest ghosts of any kind, it does hint at something out of the ordinary.
“Toy Story” is about toys that are actually alive and have adventures of their own. “Toy Story” evokes playful innocence while similar stories with names like “Child’s Play” and “The Puppet Master” are actually horror films involving toys.
Think about what your story is about, try to capture the story’s plot or emotion, and condense it in as few words as possible.
Emotionally charged titles are often best for action, horror, or comedies, but they can work for any story. An emotionally charged title contains an adjective that represents a strong feeling that pervades your overall story.
“Fatal Attraction” condenses the entire story plot in two words. “Attraction” describes the man’s lust for a psychopathic woman and “Fatal” describes the consequences when he can’t get rid of her as she wrecks his life.
“The Hurt Locker” evokes images of pain and suffering as well as being a common phrase used in the military to describe a painful situation.\r\n\r\n“Shakespeare in Love” right away creates an image of a historical love story.
“The Crying Game” evokes images of mourning, pain, and loss.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” right away makes you wonder what’s so curious about Benjamin Button. Once you see the movie, you’ll see how different his life really is.
Just put an emotionally charged word in a title that describes the general tone of your story and you may have the perfect title.
A title that implies a contradiction can grab someone’s attention right away and make them want to know more so they understand what the contradiction means. “Cinderella Man” is about a down and out boxer who gets a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Like Cinderella, the hero of “Cinderella Man” represents a rags to riches story.
“Four Weddings and a Funeral” contradicts weddings, which are joyous occasions, with a funeral, which is a somber occasion. This contradiction between weddings and funerals makes us want to know how the story can include two diametrically opposite types of events.
“The Silence of the Lambs” offers an odd contradiction since we don’t normally associate lambs as being completely silent. If lambs are silent for some reason, then we assume there must be a reason for this and the title makes us want to find out that reason.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” contains two different ideas. The word “kiss” and “woman” go together, but rarely do you see them combined with the word “spider,” so this title makes us want to know what a spider woman might be.
“Ordinary People” is such a plain title that implies a contradiction because we want to know why we should care about ordinary people.
Combine two seemingly opposite ideas in an intriguing title and that contradiction alone can attract attention. Just make sure that your story actually explains this contradiction in its title because once you set up an audience for a contradiction, you must explain it.
Places or Times
The names of places or specific times are best for historical stories where the location or time holds special significance somehow. Typically the name of a place influences the story. “Chicago” is a musical that takes place during Prohibition in Chicago. Now imagine a movie called “Tokyo” which is really about Godzilla. Even though Godzilla might smash Tokyo, the city isn’t that crucial for the story since Godzilla could smash any city and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
“Pearl Harbor” is about the attack on Pearl Harbor, so the emphasis is more on the place than on the characters in the story.
“Born on the Fourth of July” seems trivial until you realize that the Fourth of July holds special significance to Americans as the day of independence. That idea of America plays a large role in the story as the hero fights in Vietnam and comes home paralyzed.
“2012” took advantage of the belief that the world would end in the year 2012. So the whole story is about people trying to survive the apocalypse.
“127 Hours” defines the time a hiker spent with his arm wedged between two rocks where he’s forced to choose between staying there and dying, or freeing himself by cutting his arm completely off.
“Midnight in Paris” contains both a time and a place, which makes us wonder what’s so special about midnight in Paris.
When titles include time and place, the story absolutely must take place in that time or place or it wouldn’t work. “Midnight in Paris” couldn’t take place in any other city because only in Paris were all the major historical characters together at one time such as Picasso and Hemingway.
“Lonestar” is a murder mystery, but it has to take place in Texas or else the story wouldn’t work as well. As a result, “Lonestar” represents the nickname of Texas.
Likewise, “Apollo 13” couldn’t take place anywhere else but in an Apollo space capsule. Since the story is based on a historical event, it could only happen in Apollo 13.
If your story absolutely must occur in a certain place or time, then consider putting the place or time in your title.
Actions or Events
Actions imply what happens in the story. When you see a title like “Kill Bill,” that immediately tells you that someone is trying to kill a guy named Bill. The title must capture the dominant action of your story.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is mostly about a chauffeur’s job of driving around an old lady named Miss Daisy.
“The March of the Penguins” is a documentary, but it describes the major action of the story, which is the migration of penguins as part of their survival.
“Breaking Away” is about a bunch of kids, treated as second-class citizens, in a college town who dream about breaking away from their life of mediocrity and making something of themselves.
“Django Unchained” implies someone named Django on a rampage after being let loose.
“Mississippi Burning” invokes images of violence that occurred during the racial tensions in the Deep South during the 60s.
What’s the dominant action in your story? Identify that action and that can be part of your title.
Groups or Organizations
If the central point of your story involves multiple people, you might focus on the name of that group. Like most stories, “Platoon” is about a hero, but the story revolves around his adventures in a platoon fighting in Vietnam.
“Inglorious Basterds” is about a group of Jewish soldiers killing Nazis while hiding behind enemy lines.
“The Magnificent Seven” is about a group of gunslingers defending a town from bad guys in the old west.
“Dead Poet’s Society” is about a group of kids learning what’s really important in life through poetry so they form a club called the Dead Poet’s Society.
“The Breakfast Club” is about a bunch of kids thrown into detention after school and gradually learn that they are more than their stereotypical beliefs about themselves.
If your story involves a group of people who act together and has a unique name, that might be perfect for your screenplay’s title. Generally a group name in a title works best when combined with an emotion (“Inglorious Basterds”) or if it’s an interesting, non-trivial name (“The Breakfast Club”).
A story about kids in school called “High School” would be too plain, but add a little emotion to the title and you get “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which is far more interesting. Remember, titles work best when they’re not too common.
Character names in titles work best when the story is about an actual historical or well known figures such as “Lincoln,” “Ghandi,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” or even “Godzilla” since name recognition alone helps define the story. Tell someone your story is called “Ali” and it’s safe to assume it’s about the boxer Muhammad Ali and not your neighbor who may also be named Ali.
When your story isn’t about a historical figure, character names in titles can be harder to use. “Thelma and Louise” perfectly describes the two women characters, but until you know the story, the title alone might not entice you to see it. Is “Thelma and Louise” a drama, comedy, action-thriller, or something else? The title alone doesn’t give a clue.
Another well-received movie, “Juno,” describes the hero, but gives no clue what the story could be about. Only after you know the story does the title finally make sense. For that reason, just putting character names in titles can be less effective than using the other ways of creating a title.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” uses the character name plus an adjective (curious) to pique your own curiosity on what’s so special about a guy named Benjamin Button. “Django Unchained” also pairs the character name with an adjective to create greater interest because the title implies that something happens when Django gets unchained.
What if the movie were simply called “Benjamin Button” or “Django”? The names alone don’t give a clue what the story might be about, so adding an adjective clarifies the meaning and makes the title more intriguing so we’ll want to know more.
By using any of these ideas alone or in combination, you can come up with ideas for your movie. Remember, a good movie title tells you what the story’s about without giving anything away while making you want to see it. Coming up with a great movie title isn’t easy, but the long-lasting effects can be well worth it in grabbing the attention of readers, agents, directors, actors, studio executives, and finally the general public so make your title the best it can possibly be.