Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What's in a Name?

Depending on who you ask, picking a title for your novel can be a highly enjoyable or utterly stressful part of writing. Sometimes titles just come to us, and sometimes we struggle to make a list of unspectacular options. Marc Cherry thought of the title for Desperate Housewives before he had any characters sketched out. Conversely, Cameron Crowe went through a laundry list of potential titles like Something Real and The Uncool before settling on Almost Famous.  A title is one of the most important parts of your book.  It's the first thing people see when browsing at a bookstore or online. It needs to stand out while also relating to your story and/or main character. Box office pundits blamed the failure of Reese Witherspoon comedy How Do You Know partially on the bland title, which they believed did not stand out on the marquee. How much power does a title hold?

Kevin Smith’s 2008 film had controversial title – Zack and Miri Make a Porno. The Zack and Miri part was fine, but it was the Porno part that made stations, advertisers, and the city of Philadelphia uncomfortable. In the end, the film opened to a so-so $10M, behind the second weekend of squeaky clean High School Musical 3. After an ill-timed Halloween release date, the movie petered out at $31.5M.

In 2006, New Line Cinema planned to release a modestly-budgeted horror comedy called Pacific Air 121. When they changed the name to Snakes on a Plane, their genre film generated a groundswell of internet hype, based primarily on its self-explanatory title. Parodies, references, and merchandise popped up everywhere before the film’s release; Snakes on a Plane went from title to catchphrase. Unfortunately, the movie was all hiss and no bite earning $15.2M in its first weekend and plummeting quickly to $34M. Last year, MGM’s Hot Tub Time Machine generated the same type of buzz over its title, though it also failed to live up to expectations.

Some Oscar pundits believe a film’s title can make or break its chances with the Academy. Slumdog Millionaire had a catchy title to help it coast through awards season, much catchier than its source novel Q &A. Million Dollar Baby’s original title was Rope Burns, and many believe it would have lost to The Aviator with the less spunky name. For the 2009 Oscars, buzz grew about Inglourious Basterds possibly taking home best picture due to its “irresistibly cheeky title,” while Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey present Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire proved to be too big a mouthful for voters.

Catchy titles may get people to pick your book off the shelf, but it's the plot description, first pages, and word of mouth that will lead them to make the purchase. Twilight and The Help are not exciting titles, but that didn't seem to stop people. How important is a title to you?

Would you have seen the following movies with their original titles vs. their actual titles? And which ones do you prefer?

I Know What Boys Like vs. The House Bunny
East Great Falls High vs. American Pie
Old Friends vs. As Good As It Gets
Three Thousand vs. Pretty Woman
Scary Movie vs. Scream
Diversion vs. Fatal Attraction


  1. I have to admit, I think ll the titles that the films ended up with are better than the originals.

    One thing you so rightly pointed out, yes it's very important to have a catchy title; but you'd better have the content to back it up!

  2. The original title for "Pretty Woman" was "Three Thousand"? YIKES!

  3. A-squared - You don't even know the half of it! The original script for Pretty Woman was a gritty drama about a drug-addicted, abused hooker picked up by a slimy businessman, and in the end they don't get together. Disney's Touchstone unit bought the script and had it rewritten into a Cinderella romcom. Aren't you glad publishers don't bring in rewriters?

  4. Hey Phil, thanks for following me. I've returned the favor and look forward to getting to know you better.

    I liked your post. Funny, I was just thinking how cute your blog title was! I like that, too!

    And I think book or movie titles are exceptionally important. One compliment I've received over and over is how much people like the title of my book (The Mistaken.) It sums it all up in one word.

  5. Man, it's so hard to know with titles! You know Twilight was originally called "Forks"? Ha! You laugh now, but until Twilight became famous, I probably would've thought it was catchy...

  6. I think titles make a big difference but it's hard to make yourself better at coming up with them. Not much training you can do. Very interesting post.

    Moody Writing

  7. Title holds a lot, but I'm a graphics person. If the book cover looks lame, I'm putting it back on the shelf. Terrible, I know. Unless someone hands me the book and says "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS."