All posts by James Gilmore

James Gilmore is a writer, poet, filmmaker and story analyst.

10 Artistic Films to Watch Before You Die

A quick heads up: We’re going to hit the international smorgasbord of taste in this article.

Are you a cinephile who loves artistic film? The road less traveled? Films that dare to defy convention? Then you’ve come to the right place.

I’m not going to lie, each of these films holds a special place in my heart and have stayed with me in the decades since I first experienced them. Now I want to pass those memorable experiences onto others.

No, not every one of these movies hits a Perfect 10 on the quality scale, and no, I’m not asking you to absolutely love every one of these films. However, I will ask you to keep an open mind and ignore the IMDB ratings. This discussion is about expanding your horizons beyond the narrow cookie-cutter Hollywood norms.

Let’s start with something soft and light:

1. Heartbeats

heartbeats

Originally: Les amours imaginaires
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Year: 2010
Runtime: 1h 41m
Genre: Drama, Romance
Country: France
Watch: YouTube, DVD

Perhaps the most mainstream film of this bunch, Heartbeats carries itself with subtlety, tenderness, and an almost uncomfortably close intimacy. This beautifully film takes a carefully crafted approach to navigating the uncertainties of love, friendship, gender and sexual fluidity by exploring the complex relationships within an ambiguous love triangle. A small cast in character-centric film, the content itself is somewhat progressive, but breathtaking in its heartfelt simplicity.

Still with me? Good. Let’s challenge your senses a little more.

2. Princess Mononoke

mononoke

Originally: Mononoke-hime
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman (Adapted By)
Year: 1997
Runtime: 2h 14m
Genre: Animation, Action/Adventure, Fantasy
Country: Japan
Watch: DVD, Blu-ray

This anime feature film expresses a deep, theme-laden story through a dichotomous portrayal of beauty and brutality. The plot literalizes the metaphor of industrialization polluting the purity of nature, playing out the struggle on-screen with visual moments that will make your heart drop in your chest. But don’t let me spoil the plot. Experience it yourself. After all, there’s a reason this Studio Ghibli masterpiece has remained popular over the years.

3. The Tenant

tenant

Originally: La locataire
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor (novel)
Year: 1976
Runtime: 2h 6m
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD

You’ve heard of Rosemary’s Baby, but maybe you haven’t heard of Roman Polanski’s other other, arguably better, psychological horror film, The Tenant? Probably not. But here’s why you should watch it: The storytelling pays incredible attention to detail and the fluid, gradual madness that befalls the protagonist. You won’t even realize how deep into the story you are until the circular plot throws you for a loop with a powerful finale—or is it the beginning?

4. Run Lola Run

lola

Originally: Lola rennt
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Year: 1998
Runtime: 1h 20m
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Country: Germany
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

A well-known international film popular among American cinephiles, Run Lola Run straddles the line between feature and short film while exploring the surreality of multiple endings. In the story, the protagonist finds herself in a jam, forcing her to make quick decisions, each leading to a cascading series of unforeseen consequences. Lola doesn’t hold your hand along the way, either, creating plenty of material for thought-provoking analysis.

Still there? Great. Let’s move into more obscure territory…

5. Kanal

kanal

AKA: The Sewer
Director:
 Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski
Year: 1957
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, War
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD

A film by one of the Polish masters, Andrzej Wajda, the predecessor to other Polish greats like Krzysztof Kieslowski and controversial directing great Roman Polanski, Kanal offers a layered retelling of Dante’s Inferno. Set in the sewers of Warsaw in WWII, the surface plot acts as a proxy to express Poland’s struggle to regain its lost identity after the USSR takeover. Bravery, insanity, and tragedy all have their place in this incredible piece of Polish Cold War-era film history.

6. Baraka

baraka

AKA: Baraka – A World Beyond Words
Director:
 Ron Fricke
Writers: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson, Genevieve Nicholas, Constantine Nicholas, Bob Green
Year: 1992
Runtime: 1h 36m
Genre: Documentary
Country: United States
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

No, this awe-inspiring documentary has nothing to do with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Rather, it’s a visual record of a day in the history of the world from sunrise to sunset, without any dialogue or narration. In many ways, Baraka is a more of a motion portrait of humankind than a true documentary, but let’s leave that distinction to the film critics. If you love documentaries, or even just love still photography, this often forgotten film should move to the top of your list.

7. The Double Life of Veronique

veronique

Originally: La double vie de Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Year: 1991
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Music
Country: France/Poland
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

Kieslowski explores the idea of an individual meeting their doppelganger in a surreal, dramatically emotional film layered with spirituality and ambiguous meaning. This is the film to watch and analyze if you want to get your fingers dirty with film criticism. And if you like Double Life, be sure to check out Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue.

Great work! You’ve made it this far. Time to bring out the big guns:

8. Man of Marble

marble

Originally: Czlowiek z marmuru
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Aleksander Scibor-Rylski
Year: 1977
Runtime: 2h 40m
Genre: Drama
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD, Blu-Ray

A personal favorite of mine, this Polish film (Andrzej Wajda again) requires some historical background knowledge to fully grasp. Essentially, a young film student tracks down an old communist-era hero of the working class, uncovering a long trail of untruths in the process. While watching Man of Marble, keep a keen eye open for how Wajda and Scibo-Rylski dodge the communist censors while simultaneously criticizing that very same institution of censorship with every second of motion picture. And sure, the dramatic leg poses and disco music can certainly be a sensory challenge, but hey, it was over 30 years ago. Those superficial issues aside, the film’s storytelling technique is deceptively deep and intricate, and every act and every line of dialogue comes loaded with subtext and double meaning. For depth in storytelling, it doesn’t get much closer to technical perfection than Wajda’s Man of Marble.

9. A Hole in My Heart

holeinheart

Originally: Ett hål i mitt hjärta
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Year: 2004
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama
Country: Sweden
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD

Now we’ve arrived to the most obscure, avant-garde point of the article. This film experienced an extremely limited release (1 screen for 2 weeks only), paltry box office returns ($3,306 gross), and no mainstream reception whatsoever (just look at the IMDB rating and Metascore). A Hole in My Heart takes on the unrestrained lust of the pornography industry and peels away the layers to reveal the rot and disgust that lies beneath through visual metaphor and reality TV conventions such as the confession box. Sure, Moodysson’s film can be aesthetically challenging, if not outright bizarre, but simultaneously thoughtful, satirical, and—of all things—incredibly intimate and heartfelt.

Finally, let’s end on a (slightly) more positive note:

10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

cherbourg

Originally: Les parapluies de Cherbourg
Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
Year: 1964
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

This award-winning musical hangs somewhere between the realms of obscurity and cherished history, sweeping Cannes in 1964 but losing out at the 1966 Academy Awards to more mainstream films like The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago (yes, THAT Doctor Zhivago). Strange in its vivid colorfulness but drab, unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a romance that doesn’t work out, Umbrellas is nothing short of a filmic experience every cinephile should have. And while you’re at it, maybe you can settle the debate over whether it’s a true musical or really a modern asymmetrical opera.

 

Did you like this list? If so, give me a shout out on Twitter or Facebook and I will write another!

Or pick my brain yourself at Storysci.com.

Subtext, Part 1: What is Subtext?

Subtext is one of the strongest, most powerful narrative tools a storyteller has in their arsenal.

That’s awesome! But what exactly is subtext?

The short answer: Information that is communicated without coming out and directly saying it.

The very short answer: What ISN’T said.

What does that mean?

Great question. Big, complicated answer.

To answer that question thoroughly, we will start by grazing the surface of subtext with Part 1 in our article series before proceeding to a deep dive into the subject. Part 2 will explore what subtext is, how it functions, and the many forms in which it can be used in significantly greater depth.

Back to the question at hand:

What is Subtext?

Subtext is many things, and nailing down a helpful description in a single phrase always falls short. The trickiness lies in the fact that subtext isn’t directly written, stated or spoken. It is the ever present invisible context inhabiting the shell we call text—that is, the underlying story beneath the outer story crust.

Like any informational source, story consists of two layers: Text and Subtext. In a conversation between two people, text represents the words each participant says to the other while subtext includes everything they aren’t saying. That doesn’t mean subtext includes everything they could possibly or potentially say in that situation, but rather the meaning behind the strategy and delivery of the text.

storylayers_sqx2.jpg
Where Subtext falls in the layers of storytelling.

 

If Person A asks Person B, “Did you drive today?” The text of Person A’s question is obvious—exactly what (s)he came out and said. However, the subtext—what Person A didn’t say—is far richer and meaningful: Do I have to give you a ride today? The tone of Person A’s voice, the emotional backing and the context in which the question was asked add subtext as well. So while the text may be a simple question, the subtext alters the meaning depending on whether it was asked with a groan or with the intent of helping out a friend in need.

What Does Subtext Do?

The short answer: Subtext creates meaning.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext represents the emotional core of your story. Not restricted by genre, medium or storyteller, subtext is the hidden power that gives the text its emotional and thematic punch. Depth and nuance are almost entirely contained in this layer of story.

A story cannot succeed without effective subtext because the text itself cannot adequately communicate meaning in a way that feels fulfilling or satisfying. The audience will notice when subtext is missing—whether they are consciously aware of it or not—because the story will feel hollow, motivations poorly formed, and characters lacking in dimension.

If Subtext is so Important, Why Do I Need Surface Text?

The short answer: You need both. Always.

The not-as-short answer:

Surface text acts as a simple vehicle to put the subtext into a context that makes it tangible, specific, and easy to understand. By itself, subtext comes across as abstract and vague. Text without subtext feels superficial and forgettable. Therefore, every story needs both subtext and text because the story will feel incomplete with only one or the other.

To review:

  • Surface text tells us what happens, not what it means.
  • Subtext tells us what it means, not what happens.
  • Text + Subtext tells us what happens and what those events mean.

How Do I Create Subtext?

The short answer: By talking around the obvious.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext arises through restraint from revealing the mystery and explaining all, creating implication of the greater struggle that lies beneath the surface—conflict, the heart and soul of story. Basically, by not using direct exposition (text). Don’t say what you mean; say all the things that approach the subject indirectly without giving away the whole story. Think about the exposition as an aerial view of the whole forest but the audience only gets to see the trees up close at ground level. Subtext provides clues to solving the mystery without directly saying, “The butler did it.” The audience will absorb the evidence and come to that conclusion themselves, but in a way that creates a more cathartic experience because they were actively involved in the emotional journey and not just a passive participant.

A few ways to approach subtext:

  • If a character wants something in a scene, don’t let them say so. Have them employ different tactics to approach the subject indirectly without identifying the want directly.
  • If a character feels an emotion, don’t let them say exactly who they feel. Have them express or explore other secondary emotions or outward effects without dialing in on the root cause.
  • If a setting or environment evokes a certain ambiance, don’t say so. Describe it in terms of sensations, feelings, emotions and similarities without pigeonholing it with over-simplified description like “creepy” or “romantic.”

What’s Next?

We’ve only just started talking about subtext here in Part 1 of our article series. Stay tuned for Part 2: Text vs Subtext.

Feeling lost? Story Science is here to help! Contact us right away and we will help you find your way.

Create Subtext Through Implied History

writing_exercise

Today’s writing exercise focuses on a particular type of subtext.

A quick review –

Text operates on two levels: surface text and underlying subtext. While text represents the surface action, subtext consists of everything that’s really going on beneath that surface action—aka what’s not being said.

WHY

Identifying or explaining subtext is one thing, but actually embedding it into storytelling is quite another. In this exercise we will tackle the challenge of using subtext to create implied history in a character relationship.

PURPOSE

To help walk you through aging a character relationship by building successive levels of implied history through the use of subtext. With every successive layer of implied character history you add, note how the resulting subtext affects the way characters interact with each other.

CHALLENGE

Two characters walk into a kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink.

Write a short conflict-laden scene between the two characters regarding the dirty dishes and using the following situational context:

  • The two characters are strangers who have just met for the very first time.

Now write a new version of the scene with the same two characters in the same situation, only with new added history:

  • Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
  • Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
  • In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
  • In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

Did you come up with something interesting? Let us know!

 

Need some help?

Having trouble with this exercise? Here’s a little help to get those creative juices flowing —

WRITING PROMPT: Create Subtext Through Implied History

Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.

Not wanting to come off as mean or judgmental, Judy eases her way into asking Maggie about the dishes by approaching the subject indirectly. Then, after expressing her grievance in a polite, mild form, she closes her statement with a casual “…if that’s cool with you.”

How does Maggie respond? Does she respond with the same tone and tactic? Is she irritated? Maybe she feels like she doesn’t have time for beating around the bush, so chooses to escalate the situation, setting a bad precedent for encounters to come?

Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.

Sticking with Judy as our protagonist, she once again comes home to find a sink full of smelly, dirty dishes, even though (once again) it’s Maggie’s turn to clean them. Maybe Judy’s a bit of a neat freak while Maggie tends to let house hygiene slide somewhat more. While the dirty dish arguments remained somewhat polite for the first few months, they have since become increasingly forceful with raised voices, personal insults and wild gesticulations. Tempers flares. Doors slam. You get the picture.

But today is different. Her previous tactic having failed, what does she do or say differently to get her point across this time?

In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.

Somehow, somewhere, Judy and Maggie were able to look past their dish differences and form a long-term relationship of sorts (best friends, lovers, entrepreneurial partners—take your pick). It’s been a brutal 10-hour workday for Judy, so when she comes home to find that familiar odorous specter waiting for her in the kitchen, she’s finally had enough. Judy storms over to Maggie’s room, pounds on her door with all her might. Maggie finally emerges, ready for a fight. They scream, accuse, maybe even graduate to throwing dirty dishes at each other. Either way, the fight ends with Judy leaving for the local dive bar, vowing to move as soon as she’s saved up enough for a deposit on a new apartment.

In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

It’s been four decades since Judy and Maggie began their journey of communal living and over the years Judy has learned to pick her battles, knowing that for some things Maggie may never change. One of those things? Dirty dishes. Judy knows Maggie won’t clean the dirty dishes, even if it’s her turn. So when Judy comes home, sees the sink piled high with grimy porcelain, she already counts the confrontation as a loss. Instead of confronting Maggie about the neglect, she chooses to just suck it up and let the dishes rot. If worst comes to worst, Judy will do the dishes herself. Either way, Judy feels Maggie’s neglect of the dirty dishes is a fact she cannot change, and at this point, not worth the energy. So this time says nothing at all.

 

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MST3K: The Return, a Minimalist Review

While fans of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) are either loving or hating The Return  (read: Netflix “reboot”), its reception elsewhere is much more lukewarm. Starring Jonah Ray,  Hampton Yount as the voice of Crow T. Robot,  and Baron Vaughn as the voice of Servo (also known for his role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie),  The Return goes back to the old Joel Hodgson formula, complete with the much-loved invention exchange.mst3k_thereturn

Slipping into the roles of this trailblazing trio is Jonah Ray,  whose serviceable performance as an average but not-so-average guy lacks the humble charm of his predecessors, and yet manages to come across as rather likable after an episode or two. Patton Oswalt repeatedly demonstrates his performance to be the most well-acted role in the whole show and a welcome inheritor of TV’s Frank role as the evil bumbling sidekick.

But it’s the robots that stand out most. Like Jonah, as characters they are pretty bland with undifferentiated behaviors, jokes, and even voices (it’s easy to confuse the three voices in the darkened theater). Their personalities are essentially interchangeable, making them feel underdeveloped and gimmicky, like caricatures of the originals. Even Gypsy (previously voiced by Jim Mallon), whose role as the somewhat mentally slower robot sibling, is not exempt. Altering her voice from “funny” to “young and sexy” strips her character of one her most defining feature.

The show launches with a rocky start. Its series opener aims below cheesy for the disappointing sub-adequate mark. Jokes range from fair to good, rarely great. By the second episode the team finds their riffing groove and the comedy becomes relatively smooth sailing from there on out.

That said, Jonah and the bots carry a heavy torch in following up the comical adeptness of MST3K’s original cast. While it may be hard to live up to the legendary Joel, Mike, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (let alone the powerhouse trio of Mike-Kevin-Bill, now of RiffTrax fame), even they did not start out as comedy all-stars. But with a little time and practice, maybe they will one day surpass the originals.

For many, the magic is in the freshness of seeing new MST3K episodes for the very first time. Or perhaps it is watching as one of the greatest cinematic experiences in living memory passes onto a new generation while also stoking the dormant coals of that beautiful old nostalgia.

What’s the conclusion for this Minimalist Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return?

Meh.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

Questions, comments or additions about this Minimalist Review? Contact us.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a Minimalist Review

Brenda Hampton’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a TV show, in that it has characters with their own personalities, desires, coming into conflict with each other within a plot of sorts. However, it is hardly more than that.

TheSecretLifeoftheAmericanTeenagerWhile the overall storyline plays out like an immature daytime soap, characters and conversations give the impression that the show is being written by a sheltered 14 year old virgin guessing at how adults and teenagers must act in the “real” world, with limited understanding about relationships and the facts of life. The end result is a weird demonization of sex that confuses hormones, love and lust in ways that are inaccurate, misleading and downright harmful. If teenagers are using this show as a guide to navigating their teen years, they will be in for a considerable shock.

Episode plots are absurdly repetitive, so skipping 1 or 5 episodes results in landing on the exact same issues you left on. Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.

Despite being set in Los Angeles–one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US–the cast is almost entirely white, with one representative couple for each other ethnicity. But even those groups are played as “white” for all intents and purposes.

Character arcs rarely surprise as they take on predictable lines. The principals tend to fall back into the same issues repeatedly. The main female lead proves herself the most heinous of the bunch, acting selfish, petty, demanding and spoiled to the point where she ends up as a sort of villain to her supporting cast. If you want to a watch a show where nearly every character ranges from unlikable to downright loathsome, you’ve come to the right place.

While the characters themselves are rather well-formed, their dialogue seems to be written by someone who has never heard of subtext…or a thesaurus. The collective ensemble ends up wielding a combined vocabulary equivalent to that of a single 10 year old.

To sum up…

The Secret Life is one of the worst television shows to survive more than one season on the air, let alone a mind-boggling five. It is a show that exists for reasons beyond reason. If any script from this show came across my desk for analysis, it would have been an easy PASS/PASS.

Rating: 1.5/5

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STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

STORY TITLES, PART 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title

Welcome to a part two of our series on story titles. In Part 1 we discussed what a title is, where it comes from, and what it should do. In part we move on to some helpful tips on how to select the right title for your story.

The reason finding the right title is such a big deal is because it tells us so much about the story: genre, concept, tone, theme, target audience, focus, and viewpoint.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that practically everything?

Yup. That’s why your title needs to absolutely nail it. Even a slight change to any one of these components alters your story, and thus the title.

So we’ve created this quick checklist to follow when brainstorming titles for your creative work:

The “Do” List

  1. Explain it in a nutshell. Does the title explain the overall idea, concept or premise of the story in a nutshell? Look for inspiration in your theme.
  2. Identify the focus. Does it accurately convey the main focus of the story? If it’s about everything that happens in a certain place or time period, then that may be your title. If it follows an individual’s perspective, then make the title personal to that character or narrator.
  3. Know your audience. Does it reflect the right genre, target audience and age group? Always assume the audience already knows the genre and will expect that genre to be reflected in the story material. Also don’t forget to target the title toward the right age group. There’s a reason a slew of successful books have titles like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, etc. have become so popular — they know their target audience.
  4. Be clever. A clever title is a great way to catch someone’s interest. TV is the best at this: GREY’S ANATOMY and IMPASTOR are two great examples.
  5. Be succinct. In today’s mainstream market, the shorter the title, the better. There’s a reason you see a lot of one- and two-word titles in movies these days: BATTLESHIP, TMNT, GRAVITY, KILL BILL, WAR HORSE, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (cheating a bit, but hey, it works), etc.
  6. Be specific. Never opt for something generic when you can make the title absolutely specific to the story contained within. What’s better: FANTASY ADVENTURE or FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS?
  7. Make it pop. Sure, I sound like a stereotypical Hollywood producer when I say this, but there’s a reason it’s a stereotype–because that’s one way to sell your story right from the cover. Remember: You aren’t selling your story so much as the idea of your story. Get our attention right away by grabbing us by the lapels rather than politely waving from across the street.

The “Do Not” List

  1. Don’t look at the plot. This is a common mistake, and an understandable one, but the reason it doesn’t usually work is because while the plot may be what the story is about on the surface, the theme is what the story is really about, so titles based on the plot tend to feel superficial and not exactly on target.
  2. Don’t make it unrelated. Although this seems obvious at first, this is another common mistake when storytellers title their creative works. Your title needs to tie into your story in some way, shape, or form.
  3. Don’t mislead the audience. Another common mistake for storytellers of all levels, it’s important to not mislead your audience in regard to tone, genre, or subject matter. This is one of the easiest ways to violate your audience’s expectations in a way that will make them hate the story, no matter how good or bad it is. An audience who buys movie tickets to see what sounds like a horror movie will be more than a little angry when it turns out to be a romantic comedy.
  4. Don’t be generic. This can’t be overstated. Every time a script or novel with a generic title like “Four People” or “Super Warrior” comes across my desk I instantly groan because my first instinct is to assume the storytelling itself is at about the same level as the titling, which is all too often the case. Compare: A MAN to I, CLAUDIUS.
  5. Don’t play it safe. Go bold. Get creative. Experiment with everything and anything. Do research if you have to, but never ever go for bland when you go for bold and interesting.
  6. Don’t limit yourself. Believe it or not, you don’t have to settle on just one title. Create a whole bag of them, or keep a few in your back pocket you can sling around depending on who you are pitching the story to. Eventually you will find a title that sticks.

Still having trouble?

You’re not alone.

Try this:

Think Like a Producer / Editor

Writers tend to be pretty bad at coming up with a title (sorry folks, but it’s true). Producers and book editors, on other hand, tend to be pretty great at it. Why? Because they think about how they can SELL the story, and they only need to know the concept, format and target audience to figure it out. So if you’re still feeling title-y challenged, try thinking like a producer or editor. Think about how they would pitch or sell the idea to someone who doesn’t know anything about writing, filmmaking, or storytelling. Forget the story (sacrilege, I know), stick to just the concept and target audience, and keep the title as short as possible, preferably only one or two words.

In theory, knowing the rest of the details about the story gives you the upper hand, since you are able to craft a better and more accurate title. Unfortunately, because of writers’ tendency toward bad titles and producers’/editors’ considerable skill at it, many stories end up with a catchy title that doesn’t quite nail the story down as accurately as it could. Admittedly, some of these titles do the job of selling the story amazingly well. The only gripe is that they somewhat miss the mark.

Sometimes it’s fairly obvious when a producer or editor steps in to sell a story with a snappier title:

  • BREAKING BAD: Is the concept really about someone raises hell (to “break bad”) against authority? Or is it about a good man who does bad things for the right reasons and soon finds himself stuck being a bad guy?
  • INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS: Yes, this happens and the invaders do “snatch” bodies, but the original title, THE PUPPETMASTERS, suggests a more accurate portrayal of the intelligence and cunning behind the invaders’ tactics rather than the B-movie feel the title gives it.
  • JAWS: Both the movie and the book it’s based on share this title, and its working titles include THE STILLNESS IN THE WATER, LEVIATHAN RISING, THE JAWS OF DEATH, etc. (I DID say writers were bad at coming up with titles, right?), and is an externalized version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.
  • LONE SURVIVOR: Granted, the book (and film adaptation) really is about being a “lone survivor” of a military expedition gone wrong, but could easily have been titled any number of other things.
  • METROPOLIS: It’s UTOPIA by another name, suggesting we get to see a many different walks of life within this little microcosm. Buuuuut we don’t. Still, it sells the idea spectacularly.

What do all of these have in common? Despite not being storytelling bullseyes, all were and are hip, catchy, and above all, immensely popular. (And these area only a few examples of many thousands.)

When it comes to titling your own story, get into the sales mindset and try to brainstorm the juiciest, catchiest, flashiest title you can come up with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep it, but it will get you thinking in the right direction. And who knows, maybe you’ll strike title gold!

UNTIL NEXT TIME…

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Hopefully you’ve been able to gather enough grains of knowledge about titles to make you stories all the more appealing.

That’s it for now, and never stop writing!

(And yes, there’s going to be a Part 3: Story Titles in Practice.)

 

In the meantime, if you need help with your own story titles, don’t hesitate to reach out!