This week, some thoughts on TITLES.
As with so many aspects of screenwriting, opinions about titles are always subjective and I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of what I say but I hope it stimulates you to think about the title of your script and what makes for a memorable, attention-grabbing title.
Titles are so difficult but so important. FLEABAG is a good title, BACK TO LIFE is a bad title. FLEABAG feels specific, memorable, reflective of the show. BACK TO LIFE (which by the way is a show I love) feels unspecific and unmemorable.
Titles need to be specific, to be narratively, thematically apposite, interestingly odd and attention-grabbing, without being on the nose (SNAKES ON A PLANE). THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION & THE GREEN MILE are good titles. BETTER THINGS is a great show with a completely forgettable title. THE DAY TODAY was a great title – it told you everything about what sort of show this was and it makes me smile every time I think of it because it’s just slightly silly as a title.
I MAY DESTROY YOU is an excellent title – it perfectly captures the essence and tone of this wonderful show (in its hints of power / submission / violence / ambiguity).
Here is a list of random titles to be debated over (a combination of real titles and titles I’ve invented) all of which I think are pretty good –
THE MEMORY POLICE
FUCKWIT (swearing in titles is a cheap and easy way to grab audience attention while at the same time demonstrating street smarts!)
THE MAN WITHOUT TALENT
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD
THE DUMPING GROUND (it tells you so much of what the show is about)
HATE CRIME (interestingly ambiguous?)
A BOY AND HIS DOG AT THE END OF THE WORLD
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS – very specific and it evokes what the series is about.
IMO all of the above are good, interesting titles. I think these titles would pique my interest in these shows / books.
Then there are quite simple titles, almost challenging in their straightforwardness – NORMAL PEOPLE, for instance or MARRIAGE STORY. Perhaps I’m biased because I liked both of these shows – but with NORMAL PEOPLE there seems to be an interesting, ironic question implied by the title – are these in fact NORMAL PEOPLE? Similarly MARRIAGE STORY feels like a statement in itself – this is the story of one particular marriage, even if it’s possible to read from the title that this is a film about marriage in general (and ironically the film is actually about separation rather than marriage). But I like the clarity, simplicity and confidence of this as a title.
Title with names often work well because they feel distinctive and specific (THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED, THE RISE AND FALL OF JOHN STONEHOUSE, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST).
LESS SUCCESSFUL TITLES!
MISBEHAVIOUR – I watched a BAFTA discussion about the film, knowing nothing about it. It’s based around a Miss World contest from the 1970’s, about gender politics (a really interesting story area). But unless you know this, you won’t understand the pun (‘Miss Behaviour’) The title doesn’t do its job of telling you what the film is about. As a title, it feels unoriginal, generic and ultimately unhelpful in telling you what this is about.
COME AGAIN – Robert Webb novel.
There is a whole genre of generally rather excellent low-key, relationship-based, US indie films with terrible, unmemorable titles – WHAT IF, ENOUGH SAID, BEGIN AGAIN, OUTSIDE IN, OTHER PEOPLE. These are all good films but I can never recommend them to anyone (until now!) because I struggle to remember the titles – none of which tell you anything useful about what they are.
THE WAY WAY BACK is another great film with a poor title (annoyingly easy to confuse with THE WAY BACK).
The GODMOTHER – its antecedents are too obvious – and the first thing you absolutely know about this book is that it isn’t going to be a patch on THE GODFATHER.
METROPOLIS – this is a 2019 book – could they really not think of something more original? Personally I would be entirely uninspired by a new project with this title that has been used so many times before.
TAKE IT BACK – another 2019 book, this title tells you nothing about the story and is instantly forgettable
THE CHAIN – ditto
Recently I was developing a series with two writers about the community of people around a lower league football club. One was very keen on THE TRUST as a title (because the key element of the premise is that the football club is taken over by a supporter’s trust). I don’t like this title – to me it feels like the ultimate vague, generic, dull title. It tells you nothing of the tone or what this series is about. I think if I saw a show called The Trust, I’d assume it was about a dull aspect of finance. An alternative suggestion was THE TAKEOVER – which is better but still, I’d say, a little non-specific. Or ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING’ which feels to me more interesting and engaging, more fun, although again possibly (to non-football followers) not clear enough in what it’s about. I think, THE FIRST TEAM, the new BBC football comedy written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, is another weak title.
SO – are there any conclusions to be drawn? Only that the best / most striking titles feel specific rather than generic, in the same way as the best screenwriting is specific rather than general. But also that a weak title is no indicator of weak content – plenty of brilliant shows have poor titles. But a memorable title can really help make your project stand out.
If I receive a script to read and the title engages me, I’m more likely to read it and more likely to start the read with enthusiasm.
The next newsletter on Friday July 24th will be another excellent (IMO!) guest blog by HOLBY CITY script editor Ray McBride.
Until then, look after yourselves,
July 10th 2020