Category Archives: games

Why Does Success or Failure Matter? A Quick and Easy Guide to Creating Stakes in Storytelling

Let’s start at the beginning—

What Are Stakes?

Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.

If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.

However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.

In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.

Why Are Stakes Important?

Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.

What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?

If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.

This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:

  • The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
  • The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
  • The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
  • The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.

Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.

Yikes.

Nobody wants that.

How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?

Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.

Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.

A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.

Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.

A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)

Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.

Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.

So a rough formula might look something like this:

Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds

If Succeed > Raise Stakes

If Fail > “Character Death”

Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story

Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:

  1. The stakes must be clear, always.
  2. The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
  3. Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
  4. The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
  5. Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
  6. You can always go bigger.
  7. Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
  8. Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
  9. Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
  10. Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
  11. Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
  12. Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.

Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work

Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.

Here’s how we might do that:

  • The project is on a tight deadline.
  • It requires his entire workforce.
  • If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
  • If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
  • The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.

If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.

Raising the Stakes

Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.

The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.

How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.

For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.

However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too  big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.

Speaking of which….

Example of Raising the Stakes

Let’s return to the example of the business owner:

Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.

To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.

How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.

We can do this in other ways, too:

The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.

In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.

Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.

Whew!

Without stakes, none of it would matter.

There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!

If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Rewriting Process

Ask any writer what the hardest part about writing is and most them will you: rewriting. For many storytellers, rewriting is not only highly challenging, but not a whole lot of fun, either.

What makes rewriting so hard?

Take your pick:

  • Writing and rewriting/editing are two different skills
  • Rewriting is more technical and analytical, less creative
  • It feels confining compared to the freeness of pure creation
  • Self-editing is difficult because of your inherent bias
  • When your head is so far down in the weeds, it’s difficult to keep your eye on the big picture

Rewriting may be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to put a brick wall in front of your story’s future development. With that in mind, let’s look at five easy ways to make the rewriting process a little easier.

1. Make a Laundry List of Rewrites

How do you tackle rewriting a manuscript that needs so much work, it’s simply overwhelming? Make a list! A laundry list is a to-do list that itemizes each thing that needs addressed in your rewrite, separated into groupings of big, medium, small, and minor. You go through the list one item at a time, devoting all your focus to solving that one problem, starting with the biggest and most important issues, and then dialing in on smaller line items from there. Addressing big rewrites ends up solving many smaller items along the way. By the time you’ve finished your list, your next draft is suddenly much, much better. Not only does making a laundry list help you get organized, it allows you to focus on only one issue at a time without getting distracted or overwhelmed by everything else that needs to be done.

For more on this technique, read the full article here.

2. Save Every Draft Separately

You never know when you are going to need a snippet from an old draft until you suddenly need it—and can’t find it! Rather than saving over your current files, save every new significant draft as a separate file (or folder). Not only does this allow you to go back to old drafts to recover useful tidbits, but if anything happens to your current draft (e.g. computer crash) or you end up rewriting yourself into a corner, you always have a backup. Version tracking and management can be crucial, especially when working on variable story lines (like video games) or when dealing with complex deliverables (such as multilateral marketing collateral).

3. Keep Your Outline Current

As you proceed through multiple drafts of your manuscript, it’s a good idea to keep an updated outline of your story at all times. That way, as you get wrapped up in the smaller details of your story, you still have an easy reminder of the big picture—that is, the outline helps you see the forest while you are working among the trees. You can make notes about other points in the story via the outline without completely derailing your current writing task as well. The outline also prevents confusion as the story undergoes multiple drafts wherein story elements may change. Your outline essentially overrides any discrepancies between the different drafts, which becomes especially important if you decide to set the project aside for a few months and come back to it later on (see 5. Let It Rest below.)

4. Get Outside Input

Even though the process of soliciting feedback on a creative work can be painful, it’s also one of your most useful tools in rewriting. You get so involved in the world of your story that it becomes difficult to gain outside perspective—that is, how a prospective audience will interpret the story you’ve invested your heart and soul into.

A few tips for soliciting feedback:

  • You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) accept every criticism. Many will be way off base. Look for trends or repeat comments among various parties. These will be the areas to focus on.
  • Only a fraction of the people who offer to read the work will actually read it. Of those, only some will provide feedback. That’s totally normal.
  • It’s okay to preface handing out your work by saying the story is in early stages and you are just looking for general feedback. Let them know it’s not a final draft. Most people will understand, and many will be excited to offer their input.
  • Don’t get too discouraged if the majority of people who read your story aren’t super into it—that’s okay. It’s normal. You may get better results if you ask for feedback to a specific target audience similar to that of your story (“anyone out there like horror?”).
  • Try to seek out readers who are more likely to offer constructive feedback rather than accolades. While compliments feel good and can be quite inspiring, they won’t be as helpful as honest feedback.

5. Let It Rest

You’re stuck. You’re frustrated. It doesn’t seem like anything is working. So you shelve the story to give it some space and “let it rest.” You aren’t giving up. You’re simply setting it aside for a while with the intent to come back to it at a later time. Does this sound like you? Or something you would like to do? Guess what? “Let it rest” is a tried-and-true rewriting method for countless writers over the centuries. Not only is it an acceptable rewriting process, it’s a highly recommended one that can help you get “unstuck.”

Here are few reasons why coming back to a story after it’s been off your mind for days, weeks, months or even years, works so well:

  • A fresh look gives you a new perspective on the story, especially the big picture.
  • You get to experience the story more like your audience will.
  • You have a more mature, experienced skill set.
  • It’s easier to spot problems you missed before.
  • Coming back to an old story can inspire you to finish it.

After all, there’s nothing so reinvigorating to your storytelling senses than picking up an incomplete manuscript that’s begging to be finished.

We’ve explored five easy ways to improve your rewriting process. These methods are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are easy and everyone can use them.

What techniques do you use to make your rewriting process easier? We’d love to hear them.

Still Feeling Stuck?

If you still need help with finishing your story—no matter the medium—don’t hesitate to reach out to our experts here at StorySci.com. We offer story consultation and rewriting services, among many others.

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!

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…

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