A Look at a Really Good Title

I’ve learned a lot already since I started taking this story analysis course at UCLA.  Like, stuff that’s got me thinking in new directions about writing.  Like, stuff I’m probably going to share with you guys hoping that you’ll learn something as well.

One of the biggest things to jolt me recently has been the power of a good title.  Now, I’ve said it before that I believe a good title is key to helping a story’s success, but I didn’t have a good enough example until last week when I was assigned to read the screenplay for Benny and Joon.  Yes, the romantic comedy starring Johnny Depp as a Buster Keaton wannabe.

So you’re sitting there with the title page staring up at you.  Benny and Joon.  What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?  Romance.  Because we’ve seen this boyandgirl pairing many times before.  Romeo and Juliet.  Sid and Nancy.  You name it.  There’s a precedence.  So you start off thinking that a guy named Ben and a girl named June are going to fall in love.

You open the story and are immediately introduced to Benny, a man’s man.  June is introduced off-page through a phone call, but you don’t hear her.  You just hear Benny talking her through the latest crisis: they‘re dangerously low on peanut butter!  Benny assure her that he’ll pick some up on the way home.  The simplicity of the “emergency”, the childishness of it, implies that June is a kid.  So you revise your supposition and think now that this is a father-daughter story, and June is Benny’s daughter.

June finally appears and it’s obvious that she’s not Benny’s daughter.  In fact, you learn that she’s Benny’s mentally-ill older sister.  That forces you to again rearrange the story in the back of your mind.  All from the title.  You’ve gone from lovers to parent and child to brother and sister.

There’s something else in the title.  Notice how I’ve used the names June and Joon.  Why?  Because of the Johnny Depp character Sam, a talented physical comedian whose dyslexia causes him to mispell June’s name in a letter he tries writing to his mother.  Looking back at the title, you realize that it’s actually highlight both the main (the brother-sister relationship between Benny and June) plot and the subplot (the romantic affair between Sam and June).

If anyone asks me for a prime example of a really good title, this film will be it.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately isn’t just how you come up with a title but why you come up with it.  The title isn’t just a label for the story.  It’s a part of the story itself.  It’s part of that hook at the beginning that draws you in.  So the first thing a title has to do is intrigue the audience.  Think about Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  A war that literally lasts forever?  But it’s told in a finite number of pages.  How does that work?  That’s the intrigue.

More important than the intrigue is the tone and the genre that the title establishes.  Benny and Joon does sound like a romance.  Light romance or dark romance?  Light, because the alternate title of Benjamin and Juniper sounds much more formal and serious.

There also needs to be a measure of suspense, which is different from intrigue.  Intrigue merely catches your curiosity.  Suspense shows you some of the story, but only a sliver of it.  It raises expectations in the audience.  A title like Frankenstein has become synonymous with horror.  You know it’s going to end up being about science gone haywire.  Let’s try something a little less known.  There’s a French novel called Against Nature written by Joris-Karl Huysmans.  I haven’t read it yet.  It’s on my bookshelf waiting for me.  I know that it was a major inspiration to Oscar Wilde when he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.  But that title – Against Nature – does sound suspenseful because you know right away that something terrible is going to happen, something that goes against the very grain of humanity, and so you read to find out what that horrible action is.

Also, irony is a good element to have in a title.  I’m thinking of the Roman Polanski film Carnage that, despite the name, isn’t set on a battlefield but rather an apartment as the parents of two quarreling boys try to talk through their differences, only to end up making vicious verbal attacks at each other.

A title doesn’t need to have all of these things – premise, tone, genre, suspense, and irony – but it should at least have premise, tone, and genre.  Put some thought into this because although a good title can’t save a bad story, a bad title can kill a good one.

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