“Title’s the first thing’s got to go…I mean, even this writer’s name, Murray Saffrin, is better than Lovejoy.”
—Chili Palmer in Get Shorty
Selecting the right title for your work is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. It ought to be easy, given that even the longest title is only half a dozen or so words long. But much is riding on the title, and you, as the writer, know it. It will be the first thing a reader sees at the bookstore, and it will be the first thing anyone hears when talking about your work.
Have you read…
Have you seen…
Unlike other elements of your story, either on the page or on the screen, a title cannot hide. A poor scene in a movie or a bad passage of description in a novel can quickly be forgotten, a single tree lost in a forest.
But titles are how we categorize stories. They’re how we identify and remember.
It’s often easier to grasp why something goes wrong rather than why something succeeds. If we agree that The Sun Also Rises is an excellent title, we may dither endlessly as to why. It is then perhaps better to start with titles that clearly have missed the mark.
Some titles suck. There’s no way around it.
Like this one: The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice.
This isn’t rocket science. The disconnect between the desired meaning (Mother Theresa’s position on various ecclesiastical issues) and the implied meaning (Mother Theresa’s preferred position during coitus) creates a rather hilarious effect.
This is a good argument for why one needs to understand all the layers of meaning inherent in various words and phrases.
Other titles with the same problem:
- The Pocket Book of Boners
- Invisible Dick
- The Best Dad is a Good Lover
- Scouts in Bondage
- Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures
- If You Want Closure in Your Relationships, Start With Your Legs
This reminds me of parents who don’t carefully think through the names they give their children. Naming your kid Woody because you enjoyed Toy Story might seem cute, but you’re sealing your poor son’s fate.
Another unfortunate misfire are titles that attempt a clever take on an already well-known work:
- It’s Not That I’m Bitter…(Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World)
- Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn
- The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo
The single biggest problem with referencing another work in your title is that your audience is likely associate your story with the more famous reference. Even from a purely marketing standpoint, this seems like shaky ground, akin to saying: “Well, maybe I can’t date Natalie Portman, but at least I can ask her sister out for coffee.”
There are also truly bizarre titles, ones that leave you scratching your head:
- Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx
- The Men Who Stare at Goats
- Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?
- Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title
Remember, titles are important. While they should definitely leave your prospective audience curious, they should not leave them so confused as to be turned off. This is the equivalent of a limp wet handshake. Not exactly something that gets you coming back for more.
Finally, there are titles that are too clever for their own good. Clever titles aren’t bad, per se. But there is a fine line between clever and cute (not the good cute).
- The Hottie and the Nottie
- Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
- Surfer, Dude
- Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?
The Title That Could Have Been
Another way of considering titles is looking at how other writers have worked through possible titles until landing upon their final decision.
Stephen King, for example, claimed his working title for the novel Dreamcatcher was simply: Cancer. Not exactly uplifting. His wife, Tabitha, made this exact point, telling him that he needed a title that didn’t make people want to leap in front of a train.
Consider the following books and some of their original working titles:
|Final Title||Working Titles|
|Gone With the Wind||Tote the Weary Load|
|The Heart is a Lonely Hunter||The Mute|
|Pride and Prejudice||First Impressions|
|Portnoy’s Complaint||Wacking Off|
|The Red Badge of Courage||Private Fleming, His Various Battles|
Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with First Impressions or The Mute, but neither really have much zing to them. Private Fleming, His Various Battles is a pretty lackluster affair. Wacking Off no doubt would have had a certain appeal to a particular audience, but one can hardly imagine such a title rising up the bestseller lists.
Hemingway was well-known for considering a large list of titles for each of his novels. The Sun Also Rises had various working titles, including: Fiesta (the title that the book is still published under in Britain), The Old Leaven, River to the Sea, and To Lie Together. Lucky for posterity, Hemingway eventually settled upon a title from Ecclesiastes, taken from the verse:
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
Weighing the merits and drawbacks of possible titles is a task every writer faces. What great writers have done in the past is weed out the titles that do not match up well with their work’s themes. Hemingway, for example, claimed that his novel was a hopeful book, and that he wanted to convey that sense of hope within the title. Not sure about you, but The Old Leaven doesn’t exactly inspire much hope within me.
The Sun Also Rises, however, is a strong nod to the idea that no matter what you are facing today, the sun will come up tomorrow and the world will go one.
What Makes a Great Title
While there are examples of great titles that are long and complex–Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb comes to mind–most titles that succeed are short and to the point. A title is intended to be memorable. It makes little sense to burden your novel or screenplay with a title that is so lengthy and byzantine that no one can recall it properly (let’s remember that people generally refer to Dr. Strangelove…minus the rest of its full title).
Screenplays especially are known for brief, straightforward titles:
- Toy Story
- The Godfather
- Ben Hur
- Top Gun
Novels tend to have greater lassitude with titles, perhaps because there is an expectation for certain novels to sound more “literary” and longer titles are challenging to fit onto movie posters. On the other hand, movies made from novels are generally stuck with those titles, so the lines are not entirely clear cut.
Names make good titles, at least assuming that the character they reference is memorable and compelling. David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Dracula, Carrie, Harry Potter…we remember these characters and the titles of the works they spring from. Of course, how many people recall Humphrey Clinker or Aurora Floyd? Few (if any) outside of academic literary circles. Names as titles can work, but only when the work itself is great.
Allusions and Themes
Great titles often make allusions to other novels, movies, poems, plays, etc. Sometimes this is nothing more than co-opting a particularly striking line, but far more often the writer is making a direct connection between their work and the work they are alluding to.
John Steinbeck took his title Of Mice and Men from an 18th century poem by Robert Burns:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go wrong
And leave us nothing but grief and pain
Instead of promised joy!
Anyone who has read this slim novel or seen one of its many adaptations can make the clear connection between Steinbeck’s title and the overall themes shared the novel and the poem.
This is often the key to allusions: shared themes. Think of an allusion as an echo. By utilizing an allusion in your title, you echo an earlier story’s themes and ideas.
Other titles with allusions include:
- A Time to Kill (from Ecclesiastes)
- From Here to Eternity (from Rudyard Kipling)
- No Country for Old Men (from William Butler Yeats)
- All the King’s Men (from Humpty Dumpty)
- The Children of Men (from Psalms)
Sometimes a title’s allusion has less to do with shared themes and is more of an homage to a predecessor. For example, Stephen King’s novel Carrie shares its title with an earlier American novel: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. That Carrie was King’s first novel and Sister Carrie Dreiser’s first is hardly coincidental. King has repeatedly spoken of his fondness for Dreiser and the effect that reading Dreiser had on his own development as a writer.
Great titles often do double duty, making allusions to more than one thing at once. Take Carrie again. One the one hand, the title gives a direct nod to Dreiser. On the other, it also makes a subtle allusion to the burdens women must carry when they reach physical maturity. That Carrie grows up in an ultra-religious household with a mother who focuses on sexuality as a woman’s “cross to bear” (or carry) adds weight to this interpretation.
Other titles achieve similar double-lifting: The Devil’s Advocate alludes to both a main character who takes contrary sides of an argument and who is literally an attorney for the Devil. Goodfellas alludes to both the slang term for gangsters and to the ironic belief that these ruthless, murdering characters are actually “good guys”.
The Godfather operates on multiple levels, alluding first and foremost to the intimate appellation for Don Corleone. The title also references Catholicism, within which a godfather fulfills a specific religious and familial role. Finally, the title also alludes to the nature of Don Corleone’s position: within his family and within the underworld he inhabits, he is God, the Father, a man whose influence and power are (more or less) total.
Some titles achieve this kind of double duty by making allusions that are metaphors for something else. The Cider House Rules is a direct allusion to the cider house rules of the story. In the movie, Homer Wells reads these rules to the pickers and cider house workers, none of whom can read. For the first time, they realize that these “rules” prohibit numerous actions that they do everyday: smoking in the bunk house, sitting on the bunk house roof, etc.
In response to hearing these rules for the first time, Arthur Rose, the cider house foreman, says:
They outrageous, them rules. Who live in this cider house? Who grindin’ up those apples, pressin’ that cider, cleanin’ up all this mess? Who just plain live here, just breathin’ in that vinegar? Well, someone who don’t live here made those rules. Those rules ain’t for us. We are supposed to make our own rules. And we do. Every single day.
The rules are quite obviously a metaphor for the central theme of both the novel and movie: abortion, and the “rules” against abortion made by people (lawmakers) who “don’t live here”.
My Personal Favs
Great titles are hard to come by. For most writers, coming up with the right title is a slow, maddening process. But it is an essential one.
One way to get better at coming up with titles is to study great titles of the past. The following titles rank among my personal favorites. They’ve helped me along my journey. Maybe they’ll help you with yours.
- Miss Margaret Ridpath and the Dismantling of the Universe
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- The Tommyknockers
- Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- There Will Be Blood
- Little Children
- And Then There Were None
- Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed
- Light in August
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil