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Adapting Your Screenplay to Novel: Turning Your Script into a Book

So you’ve recently completed this amazing big budget blockbuster screenplay . Now you want to make something happen with it. The problem is: No one is biting.

Why?

Because big budget spec scripts don’t sell. (You can read more about that in my previous article.)

Maybe your best next step is to consider adapting your screenplay into a novel. Although this is the reverse of how the process usually works (books adapted into movies are more common), that doesn’t mean this road is any less viable. In fact, adapting your completed screenplay into a book should be a go-to course of action if your screenplay is still gathering dust after a year or two.

Recently, I decided to take a big budget fantasy script that was a pet project of mine and transform it into something marketable. That meant tossing aside the idea that this script would be sold on spec (it wouldn’t) and taking a more realistic approach: Turning my screenplay into a novel.

Having embarked on this new experience, I can now offer some helpful advice on what to expect when you adapt your spec script into a book.

If you haven’t dusted off that old screenplay lately, maybe it’s time to turn it into a book!

Why Adapting Your Screenplay Into a Novel is a GREAT IDEA

1. It’s far easier to get a book published than to get a screenplay made. And lastly, a successful novel will help build the IP required to support that big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero spec script you wrote.

2. You already know the characters, story and world. Much of the hard work is already done. Writing the novel will also help deepen your understanding of each of these elements, in turn making the script even better (assuming you update it).

3. Simply put: It’s fun! So much more fun than I can put into words. The rush of writing those big visuals as they splash and evolve across the screen is simply indescribable. Why not enjoy what you love doing most?

CHALLENGES TO EXPECT

1. You Can’t Just Paste a Screenplay and Expect a Novel to Happen.

I cannot understate this point. Movies and book simply aren’t the same. This may seem obvious at first, but the differences are deeper and truer than even most professional realize. They handle storytelling in different ways. For you, this means you can’t just copy and paste your script into prose format. You will have to invest time in writing the book for the medium.

J.R.R. Tolkien once stated that his genre-defining epic The Lord of the Rings could not be filmed for this very reason. The effort to successfully adapt the series to screen required monumental effort by Peter Jackson and his many, many teams of moviemakers.

Cut-and-paste didn’t work going from book-to-screen, so it won’t work in reverse, either.

2. Not Everything Translates from Screen to Page.

Certain storytelling constructs will require additional effort to make them work. For example:

  • Novels reveal the internal monologue / film does not
  • Action thrives on screen / requires more work in prose
  • Screenplays are leaner, less forgiving / books have more freedom to explore
  • Novels are longer, so can have wider variance in structure / script structure is fairly rigid

3. You Will Have GapsBig Ones.

Whereas a screenplay has the magical effect of stimulating the imagination with minimal words on the page, and a movie has the luxury of using dedicated specialists to realize design for costumes, sets and atmosphere, a novel must do most of this for itself. For example, characters will require more description to capture the reader’s imagination.

Likewise, objects, sensations, visuals, impressions and feelings will take a little more exploration to make the same impact. Things you wouldn’t normally have to mention in a screenplay (because their presence is implied by the location, for example) often demand a mention to help set the scene as well.

Writers like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrate a remarkable gift for writing minimal description to communicate their ideas. Storytellers like Herman Melville prefer to wax poetic for pages (even chapters) at a time about the virtues of a painting. Most of us lie somewhere in between.

Either way, be prepared to put some extra time into fleshing out the character gaps, locations, and the thoughts and sensory interpretations of the character, possibly even the narrator (if applicable). It helps to think of your screenplay as an annotated outline for your book.

4. Writing the Book Version Will Make You Want to Rewrite Your Spec Script.

Simply throwing a rough draft of your book onto the page will give you the opportunity to dive deeper into your characters and story world than you would have previously. I found it helpful to push myself through the end of a completed rough draft of the novel before taking a step back to reassess how my new discoveries might impact the next draft of the original spec script.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did simultaneously rewrite the script and the book. And yes, it was hair-pullingly difficult. In the end, both story forms benefited greatly from the process and I have no regrets.

(NOTE: Don’t feel obligated to rewrite your scriptnot at first, anyway. You can still use it as-is for a writing sample. Rewriting your script may not be worth the effort.)

5. Screenwriting is More Fun, but Novel Writing is More Fulfilling.

This isn’t so much a challenge as a forewarning. Nothing beats the rush of writing a screenplay, especially when you are wrapped up in the intensity and immediacy of the moment. Compared such an amazing experience, writing a novel can feel a little bit like a letdown. Not that it’s bad—because it isn’t—but in many ways, it takes longer in a book to cover the same ground as in your screenplay. That can be frustrating.

Still, in the end, writing a novel gives you so much more freedom to express yourself and explore the characters, voices and world than you get in the restrictive screenplay format. Because of this, creating a novel can be more fulfilling in the end. Even screenwriting great William Goldman recommended writing something other than screenplays on the side.

I still love my spec screenplay (it was a vanity project, after all), but I’m even more proud of the book that came out of it. Additionally, the novel version also has a dramatically higher likelihood of being read by other people than my spec script.

And let’s face it, there’s nothing like sharing your story with the world.

What was your experience? We would love to know.

So You Wrote a Big Budget Sci-fi/Fantasy Script. Now what?

Recently, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of a big budget fantasy feature screenplay. I wrote it both for fun and as a portfolio piece, knowing full well that a script like this would never get made. Even though it probably wasn’t the best use of my time, I still put more time, passion and meticulous care into this manuscript than I care to admit right now. (Hint: It was a lot.)

Curious for input from other Hollywood industry pros, I sent the script out for feedback. If you’ve ever written an original big budget spec script, then you probably have gone through what I experienced next. While the feedback was positive, these pros all told me the same thing: No one will ever want to buy this, no matter how good it is.

So, you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and no one in Hollywood wants to bite. You’re probably asking yourself: What do I do now?

Now that you have a big budget spec script on your hands, what do you do with it?

The short answer: Don’t toss it. Your script still has value.

The longer answer is, well, a bit longer. Let me explain.

Having a completed, polished screenplay under your belt will always be a feather in your cap whether you sell it or not. What you do with it next, however, is the big question.

First, let’s be clear and up front about expectations:

  • A big budget script is very hard to sell in Hollywood.
  • A big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero script not based on an existing IP (intellectual property, such as Lord of the Rings or Marvel) is even harder to sell.
  • A big budget script based on an IP you do not own or have rights to will not sell in Hollywood (because it’s IP/trademark infringement).
  • Your big budget script probably isn’t going to be made into a movie.

In short, your big budget genre movie is next to impossible to sell (let alone get made) in Hollywood. That may sound harsh, but understanding the reality you are up against is crucial to knowing where you shouldn’t be focusing your efforts. Instead, we’re going to take practical steps to make the most of that awesome script of yours.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at your path forward. You essentially have two choices:

  1. Use your script as a writing sample.
  2. Adapt your script into a novel.

1. As a Writing Sample

If you are like me, writing sci-fi/fantasy is your jam, meaning when you write in that milieu, you are at your best (replace with superhero, action, etc.). Pick out a few choice selections from your script and use these to promote your ability, professionalism and creativity when auditioning for new writing projects.

You probably won’t jump to working on big budget projects directly from a spec script, especially if you are still new to the business, but it can be the linchpin that opens a doorway that eventually leads to that prized assignment.

Besides, while you are using your incredibly cool script as a staple portfolio piece, you can simultaneously be pursuing option #2:

2. Adapting Your Screenplay into a Novel

Converting your spec screenplay into a novel is perhaps your best route to getting that story onto the big screen (yes, you read that correctly). In fact, you can even do this and #1 simultaneously.

If your book is successful, then the powers that be will be much more keen to turn your book into a movie. Now you’re back where you started—except this time you have the backing of an existing IP.

However, I should err on the side of caution in saying that there are no guarantees here. All of this hinges on the fact that you can:

  1. Complete a novel,
  2. Get it published, and
  3. Reach a wide enough audience with a strong enough impact that your novel is considered successful enough for adaptation to the screen.

It doesn’t have to be a novel, either. Video games and comic books are viable options as well. In fact, your superhero script may be more suited to one of these genres than a novel.

Regardless of the route you take, embarking on this journey is certainly a far better strategy than sitting on a perfectly good, superbly awesome story that the world would otherwise never get to experience.

Better to share than to hoard in secret. (Yes, you can quote that).

So now that you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and nobody in Hollywood wants to bite, maybe all your story needs is a new medium to make it big.

Time to get writing.

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 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.

Subtext, Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

In Part 1 of our article series on subtext we began a thorough introduction to the subject. Here in Part 2 we are going to dive into greater depth on how subtext functions in storytelling. As for the specific types of subtext (and there are many), we will get to that in a future article.

So…

What does subtext actually do?

The short answer: Subtext enhances storytelling by tapping into the subconscious to make the story more memorable and more impactful. It applies to every genre and every medium.

The really short answer: Subtext helps tell a better story.

But how, exactly?

Storysci.com's illustration of how subtext creates depth in storytelling.
Subtext adds depth and dimension to your story.

Subtext Sets Tone, Atmosphere & Mood

At its most basic level, subtext communicates the overall feel of the story. This can be a subtle undertone, a collection of background mood elements, or the setting of the story itself.

For example’s sake, let’s take the following sentence, devoid of subtext:

Hawker walked through the street that night.

Now let’s add a bit of subtext in the form of mood:

Hawker pushed through the murky night, parting the dense fog like a shadow in a snow drift.

Quite a difference, isn’t there?

Take it a step further by throwing in a larger atmosphere element that recurs throughout the story. Maybe everyone Hawker passes on the streets walks briskly, arms tucked, closed off from communication, not stopping when they bump into him.

Without having to directly tell the audience anything, the added subtext communicates Hawker’s isolation and introspective defensiveness, putting him into a world where every individual must fend for oneself.

For a few real-world examples, check out:

TV: Twin Peaks
LIT: The Red Badge of Courage
FILM: Body Heat

Subtext Illustrates Story, Reduces Exposition

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” The idea here is to aim for illustrating story through the playing-out of conflict, desires, obstacles and goal-seeking rather than telling the audience what happens through direct exposition. Here’s where subtext comes in handy. Subtext is all about showing because it doesn’t allow you to explain things outright (“on-the-nose,” or literally as they are).

Subtext illustrates story by communicating between the lines. It’s as simple as that. Much of the time, this kind of subtext naturally arises during the storytelling process through the choices our characters make. The selflessness or selfishness of the decision in that situation expresses something about their character, and so long as the narrative doesn’t come right out and say “this is what that choice means for this character,” then the subtext happens all on its own.

This is where the superhero genre really excels: The protagonist is repeatedly put into situations where (s)he must choose between a selfish, gratifying act or a selfless, self-harming act. Subtext comes into play when the hero makes that key decision. We (the audience) know that if the hero makes a selfish choice that (s)he will be personally rewarded, but because of ignoble cowardice and/or weakness. Likewise, we implicitly know that the hero’s selfless act will come with great struggle and personal pain, and will win our admiration for doing the right thing. All of that from a choice—and we don’t even have to spell it out for the audience. They’ll get it. Audiences are smart.

Want to see this in action? Try:

TV: The Office
FILM: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2
LIT: Of Mice and Men

Subtext Creates Emotional Impact

As we’ve mentioned previously, subtext communicates below the textual level, nesting itself in the pregnant quiet space beneath the surface message to create immediacy, greater meaning and emotion than would otherwise be possible. If you’ve ever seen a sitcom, then yes, you’ve seen this aspect of subtext in action.

Imagine a TV show conversation between Rock and Stone. Rock has been in love with Stone for 10 years. We’ve been following Rock and Stone’s comical near-love connection mishaps for 5 seasons now. They’ve never actually gotten together but both characters have repeatedly demonstrated their secret love and willingness to sacrifice all for each other since episode one. During the season 5 finale, Rock accidentally reveals those feelings for Stone in public while accepting an award. Embarrassed, Rock flees to hide beneath a tree. Having heard the flub, Stone finds Rock and confesses the same feelings. That fuzzy, tingly, heart-swelling moment that accompanies their first kiss? That’s right. From subtext.

But how?

The text of the moment isn’t all that interesting by itself: Stone finds Rock beneath the tree, confesses feelings and they kiss. How many times have we heard a story like that? What lends this particular situation the gravity and emotional impact is the fact that in that scene between Rock and Stone, we carry the subconscious build-up of all past 5 seasons of unrequited love. The power of everything that led to this huge payoff is the subtext. As the audience, we don’t have to be reminded of the past 5 seasons because we’ve already experienced it, so by not calling attention to that directly, we’ve avoided blocky exposition to let the subtext ride out the moment.

Additional great examples:

TV: Friends
LIT: Age of Innocence
FILM: Lord of the Rings trilogy

Subtext Adds Depth by Conveying a Greater Message

Here’s where subtext gets storytellers really excited. When your story is attempting to convey a theme, moral, or greater commentary, subtext is the most effective means to do so. Beginning storytellers tend to go straight to soapboxing—beating the idea over the audience’s head through direct exposition. This preachy/didactic approach rarely sticks with the audience for long, and can even turn them off from future connection with the story if it rubs them the wrong away. The more proper—and challenging—way to communicate higher messaging is through skillful implementation of subtext.

Returning to the idea of showing, not telling, the subtext of greater messaging emerges not in one particular moment or scene, but over the course of the longer story as the various arguments associated with that message are played out through the plot. In a high-level sense, we can call this subtextual messaging theme, but it also extends to motif, religious/political messaging, morals, commentary or criticism, warnings, thought experiments and what-if scenarios as well. The means by which subtext illustrates this greater messaging is by showing how that main idea (and its subsidiary ideas) play out through goal-seeking, obstacles and conflict, rather than coming out and telling the audience exactly what it’s doing. After all, would you rather have someone explain a painting to you or see it for yourself?

Satirical TV shows like Family Guy or South Park make use of subtext to lampoon political and religious ideas on a regular basis by putting characters into the situation they wish to comment on, and then using humor to express the desired opinion or viewpoint of the show as the situation plays out during the episode. George Orwell’s famous novels Animal Farm and 1984 both take a more serious approach, using literal situations to illustrate the dangers of communism—without ever directly saying “communism is bad.” In this way, the plot (“text”) tells a compelling story while the subplot simultaneously acts as an invisible force, forming the proverbial iceberg beneath the water and granting the plot its impact and staying-power.

Wan more real-world examples? Check out:

TV: Family Guy
LIT: 1984
FILM: Harold & Maude

Whew! That is a lot to digest—and there’s more to come! Stay tuned for Part 3: How to Use Subtext, where we will move away from theory and dig into the more practical applications of subtext in storytelling.

In the meantime, share your thoughts and favorite subtext-laden stories with us. We’d love to hear from you!

Still lost? Receive additional guidance from StorySci by contacting us or filling out the form below:

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: What Does Subtext Do?

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

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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