STORY TITLES, PART 1: Where Does the Title Come From?

In my profession I constantly run into writers who have a problem with story titles. Most writers and storytellers don’t know how to come with a solid title. They ask:

  • Where does a title come from?
  • What makes a good title?
  • How come some titles work while others do not?

For most, it’s a mystifying subject with little enlightenment from the experts.

Guess what?

It’s not a mystery. At least, it won’t be by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

So…

WHAT IS A TITLE?

A title is a koan, something to be meditated on, a rumination on theme, the essence of the story or project, a.k.a. your story in a nutshell. A title is the shortest possible pitch for your creative work. Think of it this way: your full manuscript is the complete version, shortened into a synopsis, then a pitch, a logline, and (at the most succinct level) the title. Therefore your title should sum up the idea of the story in a nutshell, implying genre, tone, central idea, theme, and focus.

Sounds simple, right?

Yeah, no. Nailing down what a title encompasses is the easy part. Finding the right title remains a daunting task, especially if it’s going to be perfectly fitted to your unique story.

So…

WHERE DOES THE TITLE COME FROM?

In general, the best titles come directly from the concept, premise, central idea, or theme. Often these ideas are the same, or at the very least, cross over considerably. This makes sense, since these elements of the story convey the most information about it. Your story’s genre and target audience are also important factors to keep in mind since they directly affect who will decide to experience the story, regardless of medium. Lastly, who the story is about and from whose viewpoint is also helpful to make the title immediate and personal.

In short, these four things determine where your title comes from:

  1. GENRE: implies not only the type of story, but the tone as well.
  2. CONCEPT: includes the premise, central idea and theme.
  3. AUDIENCE: determines who the story is targeted at and what age group is most appropriate.
  4. FOCUS: indicates who the story is about and who is telling it.

In that order. Why? The order of precedence indicates their importance in marketing your story. While the ideal title indicates all four points, not every title can do that…and that’s okay.

But enough about theory…

STORY TITLES IN PRACTICE

Now that we know about titles in theory, let’s poke around some real world examples to find out how they function in practice. There are copious examples here, I know, but they are highly informative and illustrate how much the title matters.

Titles Based on Genre or Tone

Horror, Action, Westerns and Comedies tend to base their titles around the genre and tone. Note how each of these titles make both obvious from the get-go:

HORROR:

  • DRACULA
  • THE EXORCIST
  • FINAL DESTINATION
  • NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
  • POLTERGEIST
  • SAW
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

ACTION:

  • BLADE
  • DIE HARD
  • ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
  • GLADIATOR
  • LETHAL WEAPON
  • SPEED
  • SUPERCOP
  • TERMINATOR

WESTERN:

  • BLAZING SADDLES
  • THE GUNFIGHTER
  • HIGH NOON
  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
  • THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
  • THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE
  • TRUE GRIT
  • WILD WILD WEST

COMEDY:

  • THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
  • ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE
  • BAD SANTA
  • DUCK SOUP
  • DUMB & DUMBER
  • GALAXY QUEST
  • MONSTER-IN-LAW
  • REVENGE OF THE NERDS
  • SCARY MOVIE
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • SPACEBALLS
  • SUPER TROOPERS
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Note how the horror titles tell us not only that it’s a horror story, but what type of horror (supernatural, slasher, etc.) so we know what kind of tone to expect. Action movies tend to use terse, information-packed action verbs in their titles. Compare the difference between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a western, to THE SEVEN SAMURAI, a samurai action film (an Eastern “Western,” so to speak). Also note how many comedy titles are absurd, reveal the funny concept, or is a play on a well-known phrase or title from the genre it’s spoofing. We know right away if it’s going to be a spoof or a ridiculously silly story.

We can change the implied tone of the story by altering the length and tone of the title as well. A romance like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND becomes a very different film with a title like MINDWIPE, JOEL & CLEMENTINE or THE ART OF FORGETTING, a sci-fi thriller, romcom, and introspective artistic drama, respectively.

Titles Based on Concept, Premise or Central Idea

These titles give us the concept, premise or central idea right up front, letting us know exactly what we’re in for:

  • CATCH 22
  • DJANGGO UNCHAINED
  • FAMILY GUY
  • FOUNDATION
  • A GAME OF THRONES
  • HALO
  • HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
  • INCEPTION
  • INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
  • THE NOTEBOOK
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE
  • ROSEMARY’S BABY
  • THE SHINING
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Many of these are simply the concept itself (in very short form, naturally). Sometimes they reveal the story’s inciting incident:

  • 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
  • BLACK HAWK DOWN
  • A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF EARTH
  • LOST IN SPACE
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE

Sometimes they hint at the ending (spoiler warning!):

  • THE BRASS VERDICT
  • CHILDHOOD’S END
  • KILL BILL, VOL.2
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD

So now when someone asks you: “What’s ROSEMARY’S BABY about?” You can reply with a smart-aleck quip like: “Care to take a guess?”

Titles Based on Theme

Titles based on theme work best when the story is theme-heavy. Note how the theme is intimately tied into the concept, premise, or central idea in each of these:

  • ANIMAL FARM
  • DANGEROUS WOMEN
  • THE FOUNTAINHEAD
  • LOVE ACTUALLY
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • OFFICE SPACE
  • THE ROAD
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
  • WICKED

More rarely, the title may sum things up with a thematic sentiment:

  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
  • LATHE OF HEAVEN
  • MY WAR GONE BY I MISS IT SO
  • ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
  • THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Note how long these titles are. That’s because they target a more cerebral, sophisticated audience.

Which brings to mind…

Titles Based on Target Audience

These titles tell us what type of person and age group is ideal for each kind of story:

  • MY CAT FROM HELL
  • THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
  • HUNGER GAMES
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE… (take your pick)
  • RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD
  • WINGS OF DESIRE
  • MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
  • THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
  • DIE HARD
  • DIRTY HARRY
  • FULL METAL JACKET
  • THE GODFATHER
  • THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
  • THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
  • CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST

Change the title and you change the target audience or age group. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE targets women ages 25+, otherwise it may have just been called ZOOKEEPERS or A ZOO IN WARSAW. HUNGER GAMES aims at a younger target audience. Change the audience to a males aged 14-24 and you end up with something like BATTLE ROYALE, or THE GAMES for a slightly older age group, non-gender biased. Target girls aged 14-24 with THE GIRL FROM DISTRICT 12. Want to make it more gory? Try BLOODBATH. Sci-fi thriller? DISTRICT 12 or THE DISTRICT.

Can you guess the target audience and age group for PART-TIME INDIAN, WINGS OF DESIRE or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

Titles Based on Focus or Viewpoint

These titles indicate who lies at the central focus of the story and from whose viewpoint we will experience that story. This is usually achieved by highlighting the protagonist, central character, a group of characters or even a fundamental location:

Titles centered around an individual (protagonist or central character):

  • AKIRA
  • ALCATRAZ VS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS
  • ANNA KARENINA
  • BARTON FINK
  • BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
  • BEOWULF
  • THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
  • FORREST GUMP
  • HARRY POTTER
  • I, CLAUDIUS
  • JANE EYRE
  • MOBY DICK
  • MY NAME IS EARL
  • STEPPENWOLF
  • SULA
  • UGLY BETTY

This idea can be expanded to a family or group entity, usually multi-generational:

  • ALL MY SONS
  • BELLEFLEUR
  • DUCK DYNASTY
  • FOUNDATION
  • FRIENDS
  • SEVEN SAMURAI
  • THE THORN BIRDS
  • X-MEN

Titles based on a central location:

  • 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
  • 90210
  • BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
  • CHEERS
  • JURASSIC PARK
  • MELROSE PLACE
  • RED MARS
  • A TALE OF TWO CITIES
  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

We can change the focus from one of these areas to another rather easily. A group story like FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS becomes an individual, point-of-view story with the title GANDALF, indicating he’s either protagonist, narrator, or the epicenter around which the story revolves. Title based on a location, such as CHEERS or INTO THE WOODS, implies that the action centers around that site and everything which occurs in it, with main plotlines more evenly distributed than if it was a single character’s story. Compare CHEERS to, say, FRASIER. Frasier is a character in both, but the central figure in only one. Can you guess which? Compare a shows an ensemble TV show like FULL HOUSE to REBA or ROSEANNE. Both are multi-camera sitcoms with an extended family living in the same house, yet the focus is clearly biased toward one specific character in REBA and ROSEANNE.

To be continued…

We’ve gone over a lot in this article, but believe it or not, it doesn’t end there. There is so much ground to cover concerning  story titles that we’re dedicating a follow-up article to explaining the rest. Stay tuned for Part 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title.

Until then…