|"It's yours if you tell me what a Shawshank Redemption is."|
It's the cover letter to a creative portfolio. The flagship of the fleet. The apex of the pyramid. Quite often it's the very first indication that a certain piece of art might be worth our attention. It's blasted across posters, billboards, subway ads, TV commercials, clothes, action figures, bedsheets, shoelaces, and ancillary merchandise. It's synonymous with your story. It is your story.
But not all titles are created equal. Some capture the theme and tone of the film in short order and make you want to know more. Others... not so much.
Some I'd call great would include American Beauty, Up, Inside Out, 12 Years a Slave, Jurassic Park, The Phantom of the Opera, Groundhog Day, and The Last Emperor.
Some that could use some work would include The Shawshank Redemption, Arlington Road, Crazy Stupid Love, Octopussy, and Life as a House. If you knew nothing else about them (and perhaps you don't, if it's release weekend and you're deciding whether or not to buy a ticket), then would you be able to accurately tell any meaningful information about them?
Screenwriter Blake Snyder pointed to For Love or Money as an example of an unworthy title. To paraphrase Snyder, nearly any film's title can be For Love or Money. Ocean's Eleven could've had that title. So could The Social Network. So could American Beauty. For that matter, the ancient tale of King Midas could've had that title. Heck, your own life might well bear it. The themes of love and money are so pervasive that a title naming such themes isn't likely to excite an audience. An audience pays money to see something that isn't everywhere. That's what your title must promise them. The unique.
Here's a method I use: your story begins with a theme - a personal point of view to be explored. Examples:
1. Hope conquers all. (The Shawshank Redemption)
2. Sometimes, love means letting go. (Finding Nemo, Up)
3. Compassion conquers hate. (Les Miserables)
4. One life of compassion over isolated, inhuman immortality. (Harry Potter)
5. We must feel sadness to feel human. (Inside Out)
6. Selflessness above all. (Jurassic Park)
7. There are thousands more.
Write out your theme. Then use fewer words. Then fewer. Then use a visual metaphor specific to your story for the word or words you have left. That can land you your title.
Other viable methods can involve answering the following questions:
What’s the film about? (Finding Nemo, Jurassic Park)
Where does the protagonist want to be? (Up)
What does the protagonist (want to) do? (Saving Private Ryan, Kissing Jessica Stein)
What’s the goal? (Everest, The Walk)
Who's it about? (Forrest Gump, Barry Lyndon, Steve Jobs)
What’s a metaphor for protagonist desire? (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
What is the state of things? (As Good as it Gets, Cast Away)
What are we fighting against? (The Matrix, Labyrinth)
What are we fighting for? (The Dark Crystal, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Where does it take place? (Jurassic Park, The Rock)
What’s the question with which the protagonist struggles? (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
What's a visual metaphor for the story? (American Beauty - itself an actual type of rose)
How is your protagonist confined? How do they attempt to free themselves?
Titles are the first experience an audience has with your story. Picking a good one is an art. Take the time. Embrace the challenge. It's worth it.
Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.