Coming Up with Titles

When people start writing a screenplay, they often come up with a title to help them focus. Ideally, a title captures the essence of a story so when you’re writing, you can see what originally sparked your interest in writing that story in the first place.

Think of your screenplay name as an advertisement for your story. If the name is obscure or confusing, it won’t matter if the story itself is fantastic. One reason why “The Shawshank Redemption” did poorly in the theaters was because the name confused people. Since they weren’t sure what the story was about, they chose to avoid it altogether. Only later when people could see the movie for free on TV did everyone recognize how great “The Shawshank Redemption” had been all this time.

A good name can make your screenplay more appealing. A bad name will drive people away. You don’t want to confuse people; you want to entice them with a hint of what your screenplay offers.

What comes to mind when you see a title like “Gangs of New York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “War of the Worlds”? The titles alone imply action and conflict.

What about titles like “Paranormal Activity,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”? Each title clearly implies horror of some kind.

Look at titles like “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” and “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective”? These titles imply silliness so they suggest comedy.

Of course, movie titles don’t always fit in neat categories. “Harold and Maude” might be a comedy, but “Thelma and Louise” definitely was not a comedy. “The Family” is an action-comedy about a former Mafia boss in the Witness Protection program, but “The Butler” is a historical drama about a White House butler who lives through various Presidents.

Often times you may have a story in mind but won’t have a title. Rather than leave your title blank, come up with a temporary or working title. Sometimes you may turn the working title into the final title, but often times any working title is enough to keep your mind focused on your story.

When you finish your screenplay, you can decide if a better title might be more appropriate. As Table 1 demonstrates, many stories began with an awful working title and only got a better title afterwards.

Original Title                                                         Final Title
“3000”                                                                        “Pretty Woman”

“When I Grow Up”                                                   “Big”

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”           “Blade Runner”

“The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”  “Saturday Night Fever”

“Okavango”                                                              “Blood Diamond”

“The Cut-Whore Killings”                                     “Unforgiven”

“East Great Falls High”                                         “American Pie”

“Ace Ventura Goes to Africa”                              “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”

Table 1. Before and After titles of famous movies.

Notice that the original title describes the story, but is either too obscure (“Okavanga”) or too direct (“The Cut-Whore Killings”). When coming up with a title for your screenplay, experiment until you find one that feels right. Remember, you can always change your mind later.

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