How to Write a Title

Jaws.jpg
Best movie poster ever.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of your work’s name. An intriguing attention-grabbing title will whet the appetite of an agent, publisher or producer and put them in a receptive frame of mind when they start reading your work. Luckily there are some simple rules that will help you come up with something memorable.

Types of Title

Most titles, whether they’re for books or movies, can be placed into one of three broad groups:

  • Descriptive titles

  • Abstract titles

  • Cryptic titles

The examples below are all from movies, but the same rules apply to titles in any media.

Descriptive titles

These are titles that give you enough information to take a good guess at both the subject and genre of your work:

Dumb and Dumber. We know this story must involve two idiots, one being more idiotic than the other. The title also leaves little doubt that this is a comedy.

An American Werewolf in London. Pretty much on the nose. You can’t get much clearer that this.

Big Trouble in Little China. This sounds like an action story and we might guess it’s set in the Chinese district of a large city. The big/little play on words also suggests a light-hearted romp rather than something more gritty.

Abstract titles

These titles are vague and largely meaningless, but they still grab our attention:

There Will Be Blood. The word ‘blood’ obviously threatens violence of some kind, but beyond that we’re none the wiser. Could it be about vampires? A family feud? A crime story of some kind?

The Big Sleep. There are no clues here unless we know that the phrase ‘big sleep’ is a euphemism for death. And even then we’re left wondering.

Blazing Saddles. Something about an arsonist attacking a stable? But it sounds so kooky it has to be a comedy, doesn’t it?

Cryptic titles

These titles appear to be abstract, but meaning behind the words becomes clear once we see the movie:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A mystery till we find out that these labels describe the three protagonists. Blondie (the good), Angel Eyes (the bad) and Tuco the Rat (the ugly).

The Day of the Jackal. Possibly a wildlife documentary, but ‘Jackal’ turns out to be the codename of an assassin. And this particular Jackel does indeed have a big day.

Blade Runner. This means nothing to us till we discover this is a futuristic slang term for a replicant hunter. (Though this title originally belonged to a story about a man selling illegal surgical equipment.)

How to come up with effective titles

As you can see from the above examples an effective title will include one or both of the following elements:

  • At least one powerful key word that arouses interest and excitement: Blood, Ugly, Jackal, Blade, Blazing, Werewolf, Trouble.

  • An intriguing combination of words: Big/Sleep, Blazing/Saddles, Blade/Runner, Day/Jackal, Big/Little.

The trick to coming up with your own title isn’t necessarily to brainstorm some likely words then randomly stitch them together, but to write down lists of potential titles then see how many of them hit the notes described above. Do any stand out as intriguing and/or exciting? Is there anything about your titles that would encourage anyone to take a second look if they saw them on the shelf of a bookstore or an online playlist?

How many of your favourite titles fall into one or both of the above categories? Take a look at the Reedsy Book Title Generator. It’s a fun site and not meant to be taken seriously but you’ll find that any of the half decent titles the generator throws up will follow the rules laid out above.

Imagine we have a story about a man who tries to save his struggling business from bankruptcy by investing in a drug deal to import a huge amount of cocaine into the country —  a deal that goes horribly wrong. This is essentially the true-life tale of the DeLorean car company, but let’s see if we can come up with a title for a fictional version of this story. Two obvious avenues immediately open up to us: car references and drug references.

 

Since this work is about a car company going off the rails, suitable car-related titles might include:

 

Tailspin: a dramatic reference to a car-related mishap that might also describe the mental state of our protagonist. 

 

Road to Ruin: some nice foreboding in this title, but it’s an overused phrase. Changing ‘Road’ to ‘Roads’ could make it more distinctive.

 

The Collision: another ‘car accident’ phrase and an allusion to the collision of two different business worlds: automobiles and narcotics.

 

Whiplash: a sudden injury almost exclusively associated with car crashes, and a title that promises sudden violence.

 

Wreckage: a simple title of grim foreboding.

 

Now let’s look at some drug options: 

The Charlie Gambit: a nice cryptic title. In this case ‘charlie’ being the slang term for cocaine. However, this title might be a little too ‘light’ if the script is hardcore and gritty.

 

White Saviour: a provocative title, with ‘white’ being an oblique cocaine reference. It could be considered misleading though.

 

The Columbian Hail Mary: a little long-winded, but intriguing. For better or worse ‘Columbia’ is strongly associated with cocaine and ‘Hail Mary’ is sporting reference for a desperate last chance, so it’s descriptive and apt.

 

The Candy Cure: here ‘candy’ is a reference to ‘nose candy’ and the ‘cure’ is the hoped for solution.

Cartel: most people associate a ‘cartel’ with drugs, and the word includes the letters ‘c-a-r’, so there’s that. Bit flimsy though.

 

Of all the above ‘Tailspin’ is my favourite. It evokes both fast, disorientating action and sudden disaster. Everything might change when someone else gets their hands on the project (see below) but until then we have a working title.

The real-life DeLorean scandal spawned a number of movie and television projects. Two dramatisations were Driven and Monkeys (the latter being a code used for ‘kilograms of cocaine’). In contrast, aside from the documentary Scandal: The Fast Lane, every factual piece about the case has prominently featured the DeLorean name:

 

  • DeLorean

  • DeLorean: Living the Dream

  • Framing John DeLorean

  • Car Crash: The DeLorean Story

  • Anything to Win: The Crash of John DeLorean

  • DeLorean: Back from the Future (a reference to the DeLorean car famously featuring in Back to the Future

  • Myth & Mogul: John Delorean

Tips on writing a title

If you sell the rights to your script or novel you may have little say in the title it ends up with. In most cases signing a contract also means signing away the right to make marketing decisions and this includes title choice. However, when choosing a title you should consider the following, especially if you’re self publishing:

  • Keep it real. Your title shouldn’t make promises your story can’t keep. In the above we suggested ‘White Saviour’ as a title for our fictional DeLorean story. The title does make sense once you get into the plot, but it’s likely to attract an audience unprepared for, and perhaps unreceptive to, that kind of tale. In the same way ‘Roar of the Hunter’ is a good hook for a story about big jungle cats, but likely to be an anticlimax if your story is about teeny house cats.

  • Make it memorable. Titles comprising short, simple, everyday words are the easiest to recall and it helps if they also conjure up a mental image to cement it in the memory. In the above the best example of this kind of title is ‘Candy Cure’ with these words conjuring up a variety of vivid and unusual mental associations.

  • Can you actually say it? Word of mouth recommendations work best when people can actually pronounce a title. Avoid tongue-twisters and hard to say words. There’s a good reason you’ll never see works titled ‘Mrs Miller’s Pteridomania’, ‘Renumbered Remunerations’ or ‘The Kyrgiakis Convention’.

  • How will it look? Not so much an issue on a movie poster or theatre playbill, but the cover of a paperback offers limited space for a designer to work with. How would a title like ‘Incontrovertible Spiritualization’ appear on a book cover? If both words were put on one line the text would have to be tiny or very compressed to make it fit. Putting the words on separate lines does something to solve the problem but creates an ugly slab of verbiage. This is a practical reason to choose a title that comprises short simple words — they offer a designer more creative freedom in how they’re arranged.

  • Do it later. Is there a hurry? If you can’t decide on a title at the outset, leave it and see if a name suggests itself during writing. An appropriate title will often leap out at you when you least expect it.

Is it similar to anything else?

Once you’ve decided on a title do a little research and see if it or a similar name has already been used. If it’s a book take a look at websites such as Amazon and AbeBooks. If it’s a movie try the Internet Movie Database. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but if someone else has used a similar name for their work there’s a possibility of confusion. Did you enjoy Hard Times? Which one? The Dickens novel or the bare-knuckle boxing movie starring Charles Bronson?

 

In the past these coincidences might not have mattered so much, as a movie or novel written ten years ago would likely have been forgotten by the time you decided to recycle the name. However, these days any web search will drag up every previous incarnation of your chosen title and anything remotely like it, so the more unique your title, the better.

Famous title changes

Don’t worry if your title ideas don’t appear to fit the bill. Keep trying, even the best writers can have trouble coming up with something suitable:

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind went through numerous title changes:

  • ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’

  • ‘Tote The Weary Load’

  • ‘Milestones’

  • ‘Jettison’

  • ‘Ba! Ba! Blacksheep’

  • ‘None So Blind’

  • ‘Not In Our Stars’

  • ‘Bugles Sang True’.

Peter Benchley’s best seller started life as:

 

  • ‘The Stillness in the Water’ which then became

  • ‘The Summer of the Shark’ and

  • ‘The Terror of the Monster’ ending up as

  • ‘The Jaws of the Leviathan’ before finally slimming down to

  • Jaws.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘Incident at West Egg’ morphed through: 

  • ‘Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires’ to

  • ‘Trimalchio’ then

  • ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ which became

  • ‘On the Road to West Egg’ then

  • ‘Gold-hatted Gatsby’ moving to

  • ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’ and then

  • ‘Under the Red White and Blue’ to eventually settle on

  • The Great Gatsby.

The original names of famous movies

‘Star Beast’ became Alien
‘3,000’ became Pretty Woman
‘The Contender’ became Rocky
‘Black Mask’ became Pulp Fiction
‘Comfort Food’ became American Pie
‘Dangerous Days’ became Blade Runner
‘The Cut-Whore Killings’ became Unforgiven
‘Head Cheese’ became The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
‘There’s Something About Sarah’ became There's Something About Mary

The original names of famous books

  • ‘Catch 18’ became Catch 22

  • ‘The Sea-Cook’ became Treasure Island

  • ‘Mag’s Diversions’ became David Copperfield

  • ‘First Impressions’ became Pride and Prejudice

  • ‘Strangers from Within’ became Lord of the Flies

  • ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ became War and Peace

  • ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ became The Time Machine

  • ‘Something That Happened’ became Of Mice and Men

  • ‘They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen’ became Valley of the Dolls

  • The first edition of Robinson Crusoe was sub-titled ‘The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates’...

  • Phew. But at least you knew what you were getting into.

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