Peggy Bechko: Slapping a Title on It

See, the human's name is "Title" and the robot's slapping him, so we thought....nevermind.
See, the human’s name is “Title” and the robot’s slapping him, so we thought….nevermind.

by Peggy Bechko

All right! You wrote it, now what are you going to call it? What’s the perfect title for that script that’ll catch a reader’s eye and maybe put it to the top of the stack? What’s the ‘grab-ya’ title for the book manuscript that will get a reader to pick it up and peruse the story?

Yep, it’s a dilemma, that is.

Let’s start at the beginning. First of all a title is short. Yes, yes, I know there are some that use long titles and are successful – yes, yes, yadda, yadda, right. Now that we’ve gotten past that just because YOU happen to have a long, wonderful title let’s get real. Let’s throw out there four words or less.

On a script the title stands right out there in your face – black on white. Yep, there it is. A short title is still best. Think The Hobbitt, Godzilla, Lord of the Rings (yes, yes, there’s a subtitle on each, but Lord of the Rings is what we’re watching for), Die Hard, Secretariat, When Harry Met Sally, Avatar. Look at TV series – House, Doctor Who, Elementary, The Black List.

With novels it’s a bit different but not much. You don’t have the advantage of the blank page like you do with a script. There’s going to be artwork on that cover and hopefully your name. And, these days it’ll probably be in a digital edition as well which will mean a tiny thumbnail to catch a reader’s attention. So, titles like mine – Stormrider, like M Pax’s Backworlds, Stepehen King’s The Dome (series) The Stand (book) make the reading easier.

Conclusion? Really, don’t strain eyes to see the tiny print and don’t strain brains to remember long titles; let’s keep it short.

So short it gets tricky as to what to pack in there.

Plainly the story needs to be identified. Avatar? Yep, that covered it. Godzilla? Ditto. The Stand? Yep. Stormrider – you bet! Die Hard? Certainly. It may take a lot of idea tossing, but you get where I’m going here?

Then the title has to grab attention of script readers and novel readers; whichever you’re pitching to.
It has to be noticed, take center stage. Challenging? Uh, huh. You may even want to put hidden meaning into that title, extra meaning that becomes apparent after watching or when reading. This last is at your discretion. The depth of perception of your readers is definitely variable. They may not always catch the ‘other meaning’ but that’s okay too, if you do it YOU’LL know it’s there.

So when do you come up with your title? Whenever. Seriously. Don’t think you need to get that title perfect before you even begin to write, or that it has to wait until you’re completely done. It can come to you any time, maybe when you’re in the middle of writing. I usually start with a ‘place holder’ title. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it changes. And don’t forget it can change anywhere along the line. An editor may suggest a change for the title when approaching galley stage. A producer may simply not like what you’ve come up with. It has to be the best you can make it to grab attention and hold it, but remember it could well change during the process.

Finding a title, even a ‘place holder’ can help you focus in your writing and discern patterns that develop in your story. And remember, ultimately a great title can greatly increase your sales – it could also grab a script reader enough to pull your story out of the slush pile.

And these days a bit of a nod to the search engines online isn’t a bad idea either. The more specific you can be the better. For example, if you’re writing a book about “The Gods of Olympus” perhaps being more specific could be helpful on several levels. Like “Mercury’s War” or “Splashdown of Zeus”. (Bad titles, but you get the idea).

Oh, and one last thing. Titles are not copyrighted. Therefore the title you think of may well have been used before. It would be a good idea to do some research and see if that title has been used and if so in what context, before you decided to use it for your work.

So give it some serious attention and come up with something original, catchy, and attention grabbing.