Apr 28

Thinking About Titles

Thinking About Titles

Everything about your story should get your best effort.  This includes the title.  If you think titles don’t help sell your story, you are very mistaken.  Just like with books, covers sell, no matter what the ol’ wives tales to the contrary may imply.  With movies and plays, posters sell tickets to your production.

Let’s say I have a title of a novel, a short story, a script for a movie, TV series or a play called, “FRED.”  Does this interest you in buying the prose or seeing the film, TV, production or the play?  Probably not.  (If it does, I worry about you.)


Titles have several purposes:


    1. To distinguish your novel, short story or script from other similar products;


    1. To arrest the attention of potential publishers, investors, studios, distributors, talent, viewers and/or readers;


    1. To represent the story in an intriguing way without misleading;


    1. To add depth to the story by implying theme and/or subject matter;


    1. To prepare the reader or viewer for the story;


    1. To be catchy, memorable, humorous, threatening, or quizzical;


    1. To be short and easy to post on a websites, in shop windows, in TV Guide, or on theater marquees;


    1. To indicate the tone of the story.


That’s a ton of work for a few words.  And that’s why U.S. Federal courts have ruled that you can’t copyright a title.  .  (Film and TV titles can be registered with the Producer’s Guild http://www.producersguild.org/ but this is not binding on nonmembers.)  That’s also why there are many books, short stories, movies, and plays using the same title.

Try Googling, Binging or going to Amazon.com and check out “The Power And The Glory.”  You’ll discover that British novelist Graham Greene wrote a novel with that title in 1961.  So did Lou Lutour in 1967, Ivan Rendall in 1991, Grace MacGowan Cooke in 2003, the same year Adam Nicolson wrote one, David A. Yallop did the same in 2007, Howard V. Chaykin in 2009, and Kimberly Lang penned a Harlequin  Extra by that title in 2011.  There’s also the 1998 N.F.L. Films soundtrack CD with that name.

All this is to say you can’t copyright a title.  Even George Lucus can’t copyright “Star Wars.”  He can register these words printed in a particular font as a graphic display, but he does not own the words.  Of course, if a title is a popular and/or as well known as “Star Wars,” it would be kind of stupid to use that as the title of your book even if it’s about the physics of colliding celestial bodies and not science fiction.

So what are some good sources for titles?

Try famous quotes from:

  1. literature (lines of poetry, quotes from books, short stories, tales, and legends) (Miles To Go; Frankly, My Dear…; Something Wicked This Way Comes)
  2. sacred texts (Bible, Koran, etc.) including prayers and blessings (The Four Horsemen; The Power And The Glory; A Just Nation; The Sound And The Fury)
  3. speeches – (And Justice For All; I Have A Dream; Carry A Big Stick)
  4. historical remarks – (I Shall Return; A New Generation of Americans; The Last Frontier; War To End All Wars)
  5. lines from notable songs – (Singin’ In The Rain; A Hard Day’s

Night; Momma Mia; Can You Feel The Love; Lyin’ Eyes)

  1. sayings – (Eyes Wide Shut; Madmen; The Last Hurrah; Hired Guns; Too Good To Be True; Do The Right Thing)
  2. ancient or cultural wisdom – (Don’t Sit On Your Spurs; ..The World Half Blind)


  1. out of date sayings with current connections – (Stand And Deliver; )
  2. popular/slang phrases (As If; Redneck Girls; He’s Like…”
  3. common, everyday phrases  (Nasty Habits; Casual Sex; That Darn Cat; To Hell And Back; Mom And Apple Pie)
  4. nations – (In God We Trust; Out of Many People – One; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity)
  5. commercial products — (Better Living Through Chemistry; You’re in Good Hands)
  6. clubs and/or organizations – (Be Prepared; First In – Last Out)
  7. geographic – (Down Under; Holy Land; East of Eden;
  8. galactic – (Deep Space; First Star To The Right;
  9. make believe – (Treasure Island; Never, Never Land)
    1. slogans
    1. switched words  — (A Snitch In Time; A Criminal A Day)
    2. places
    1. famous people

1.  royalty – even playing on those name (A Prince of Thieves; Prince Hairy)

2.  officials (governmental, religious, military, police, etc.)
h.   names of civilizations, tribes, cultures, nations (Atlantis; Ancient Land; The Old Kingdom)


    1. juxtaposition of dissimilarities (Naked Gun; Living Dead; The Magnificent  Obsession; An Enduring War)


    1. twists on all of the above
  1. play on words — (The Hand That Kneads You; A Warm Ice Pick)
  2. word replacement (There’s A Girl In My Soup; Live and Let Die)


Other kinds of titles include the use of numbers.  There are certain numbers which seem to work better – like 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, etc.  (The First Monday; The Magnificent Seven; 9 ½ Weeks; The 13TH Warrior;, 21 Grams; Last Of The Mohicans)

Extremes also make for interesting titles (best, worst, last, final) (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; The Worst Night Of My Life; The Last American Virgin)

Alliteration can make for interesting titles: (Kill Bill; The Last Virgin From Las Vegas; Love, Lust and Life).

Words related to religion, life and death, and sex always intrigues us. (Resurrection; Miracle on 34TH Street; Death Trap; The Vagina Monologues)

How about poor titles?  Think of overused expressions and titles (The Cowboys; The Brightest And The Best; A Dark And Stormy Night).

Names of unknown or unfamiliar people and/or places also make for poor titles. And some of the best names in fiction writing have fallen into this trap.  (Elmer Gantry: Danny Brisco; Michael Collins; Emma; Tom Sawyer.)  The addition of “The Adventures of…” can help, but if your reader or your audience doesn’t know who this person is until after they’ve read the story or seen the production, the title didn’t help sell it.  We may know the names of these characters later but if you first encountered “David Copperfield,” or “Annie Hall,” or “Shane,” what would those titles tell you about the book?  Of course intriguing names with an interesting sound can be interesting (Dr. Strangelove; Ben-Hur), but they don’t tell you a lot.

When I was doing my dissertation on “Gunsmoke,” many of the episodes were named after the key character of the week, a uniquely named person but you would watch the show because it was called “Gunsmoke” not because of the episode title of an odd or uniquely named person.

Phrases that only make sense after you’ve read the story or seen the production aren’t good advertisement (To Kill A Mockingbird; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington;)  Sure they’re famous now and we know what they mean, but did anyone before they read the tales or saw the productions?

Remember a title has a myriad of duties to perform for you and your story.  Don’t settle for something easy.  The extra effort may be the difference between a sale and no sale.

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