The Importance of Titles

Titles are your audience’s first impression of what your screenplay is about.

Every movie needs a title. The title you pick can set the tone for your screenplay and give people a reason to see (or avoid) it. A good title hints what the movie is about and makes you want to see it. A bad title just leaves you scratching your head, wondering whether the movie is a western, a chick flick, an action movie, or a science fiction thriller. If you don’t know what you’re going to get, you probably aren’t going to bother trying it.

Think of the supermarket where cans, boxes, and bottles clearly label what’s inside. Now imagine a box that’;s completely blank, written in a foreign language, or just labeled “Stuff.” The chances of you taking the time to open it is minimal, and the same holds true for a movie title.

The simplest movie title just describes the character’s names like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Harold and Maude,” “Rocky,” or “Forrest Gump.” These titles tell you who the movie is about, but doesn’t necessarily tell you what it’s about. Generally the movie ads have to give you a clue whether the story is an action thriller or a western. A movie title about  a person is usually meaningless unless that person is somebody famous like “Ghandi,” “Nixon,” or “JFK.”

Rather than naming specific characters, a title might just give a label to your main characters such as “The Warriors,” “The Wild Bunch,” or “Gladiator.” The title alone might not tell you exactly what the story is about, but you get a hint what type of story you’re about to watch. “The Warriors” is probably going to involve fighting and a movie like “The Wild Bunch” probably involves some action.

Sometimes a movie title just describes the place where the movie occurs like “Tombstone,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Titanic,” or “Casino.” Generally a title that describes a place also assumes that the place has meaning to the audience. While nobody may know who Thelma and Louise may be, most people know that the Titanic sank or that Tombstone is famous for its western shootouts. As a result, these types of titles give a hint of what the movie is about by relying on the audience’s own knowledge.

Sometimes titles that describe a place signals a special meaning for that place in your story. “Brokeback Mountain” may not hold any particular meaning, but it does indicate that the story takes place on a mountain and that mountain holds special significance to the characters involved. The danger with these place-specific titles is that they initially hold no meaning for potential audiences.

“The Shawshank Redemption” was probably one of the worst titled movies, but that’s only because it came from a Stephen King story called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” “Brokeback Mountain” also came from a short story, so you tend to see vague, place-specific titles when they’re adapted from books. In general, place-specific titles that don’t hold any meaning to the audience risk being a weak title for your screenplay.

Another danger of place-specific titles is that they don’t tell much about the time period of the story. “Australia” is obviously about Australia, but does it take place today, in the future, or in the past? The title is too vague and doesn’t intrigue the average audience member. You might as well call your movie “Film” for all the excitement such a plain title might offer.

Besides naming the place where your story occurs, a movie title might define a time such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “1941,” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” These time-related titles also hint at what the story is about. Back in 1968 when “2001” appeared, it was clearly a science fiction movie. “1941” is clearly a period story, while “The Day After Tomorrow” is something that occurs within our own lifetime. Again, a title hints and teases the audience to give them just enough information to grab their interest but not enough to give away the whole story.

Other types of movie titles describe the atmosphere of the story. “My Bloody Valentine” is clearly a horror/slasher flick while “Alien,” “Predator,” and “Die Hard” hint at something that involves action, but is clearly not a chick flick and probably isn’t a historical piece either. The key to these types of titles is that they hint at the movie’s theme without coming right out and stating it.

Think of those bad 50’s movies with titles like “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” “Alien” could have been named “The Creature That Grows Inside” or something inane like that. However “Alien” is much subtler and piques your curiosity. A good title tells just enough about your story without telling too much.

Sometimes titles can get too specific. Would you want to see a movie called “Another Slow Night in Modesto”? For most people, they don’t know where Modesto is, so the name makes no sense. Fortunately, George Lucas convinced the studios not to use this name for his movie and instead used the more descriptive “American Graffiti” title instead, which hints at the atmosphere of the story without actually telling you what that story really is.

Titles can also use irony to pique an audience’s interest such as “Moscow on the Hudson” (about a Russian defecting in New York) or simply summarize the story itself such as “Escape From New York” or “Saving Private Ryan.”

Coming up with the perfect title is half the battle with writing a screenplay. It’s usually a good idea to have a title nailed down before you start writing or developing your story because a title can give your writing a focal point. Writing a script titled “The Perfect Storm” helps keep your mind focused on the main elements of your story than if you had titled it something vague.

When creating a title, experiment with:

  • Character names
  • Descriptions of character types
  • Places
  • Times
  • Theme
  • Irony
  • Story summaries

Some of the best movies in history have had poor names while some of the worst movies in history have had great titles. A title alone won’t guarantee your movie will be good, but a great title can help get your script read and that’s the first step to getting it produced, which is the whole goal of screenwriting.

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