Monday, August 6, 2007

What's in a Name?

Titles are so important for one obvious reason—it’s your audience’s first introduction to the idea and story of your script. For some titles may be easy, but for others it’s an elusive process to find the right words.

I recently changed my screenplay DYLANOLOGY to TANGLED UP IN BOB. Just look at those two titles—those are two entirely different movies. Which one sounds more likes a buddy road comedy?

A few years ago I used to love titles. They came easy for me. Sometimes the title would come first and that alone would inspire a play. I always have a fondness for LOVE & DEATH IN THE TIME OF CRAYOLA. It’s funny because it’s obviously a rip-off of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera (which I still haven’t read, by the way) but it also encapsulates what happens with those pre-schooler characters in my play. It really is about love and death. And a kid eats crayons. It’s all there in the title.

But now I’m struggling… I used to love the title OBSCURA. It seemed mysterious and intellectual, at least to me…and one of the characters was a photographer who made a make-shift camera obscura out of his hotel room. For me, it evoked the darkness and obscurity of being an amnesiac and trying to recover a lost identity.

Yeah, great. For everyone else it meant nothing.

The title confused them. It’s a confusing play as it is, and they’re lost from the get go. It doesn’t even have a character name in the title so we have trouble figuring out whose story it is. Also, it’s slightly pretentious. I mean, it’s just the latin word for “dark”. So why don’t I just call it “Darkness”?

In other words, that title doesn’t evoke any feelings or hint at what the story is about.

Yes, the main character, Annie, is an amnesiac and is literally in the dark. But is that all the play is about? God, I hope not. Unfortunately, I still haven’t found a better title, but I’ve got a long, long list (we’re going at over thirty ideas and none of them seem “right”). The play is going through rewrites so I trust that I’ll find it as I discover more about the play.

Now, there’s this other little three person one-act play I’m writing about a burnt out poetry teacher in his mid-30s who mentors a younger 19 year old female prodigy. That play is called THE ALBATROSS. That title conjures up an image and an idea, made very famous by the poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I think it works because it hints at some darkness and you might even guess that the play will not end happily. Now, we’ll see what reaction it has on audiences as I go forward with readings. By the way, no one ever mentions that poem or anything about an albatross the whole time which is intentional (maybe it’s just because I hated how Chekhov constantly has Nina saying she’s a seagull in The Seagull).

When you think about your favorite movie or play, think about the title and what it evokes in you. Look at the movie marquees these days and see how many movies you would go see just on the title alone.

I look at lists of scripts on Variety as well as on lists named in competitions. I can’t tell you how many scripts are just borrowed phrases or clichés…things like “Sweet Dreams”, “Sink or Swim”, “A Long Way Down”, “Crash and Burn”, “My Father’s Son” and “Cell Mates”. Sometimes you can get away with it, especially with movies, but why settle for some generic title?

So what makes a great title? I think they’re usually simple and succinct, encapsulating the story but evoking some kind of emotional response. Sometimes it can be an image or an activity. Sometimes it can be poetical or just one word. But it’s usually hinting at something mysterious. Think about some of the great titles in literature. That’s what you should be aiming for if you want people to get excited by your story. Naming your play is not just marketing, its part of your art.

Here’s a list of some beautiful titles I love…

36 Views (Iizuka)
A Bright Room Called Day (Kushner)
American Buffalo (Mamet)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (O’Neil)
An Enemy of the People (Ibsen)
Angels in America (Kushner)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams)
A Touch of the Poet (O’Neil)
Buried Child (Shepard)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams)
Death of a Salesman (Miller)
Desire Under the Elms (O’Neil)
Endgame (Beckett)
Life is a Dream (Lorca)
Mother Courage (Brecht)
Prelude to a Kiss (Lucas)
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Rivera)
Sexual Perversity in Chicago (Mamet)
The Beauty Queen of Lenane (McDonagh)
The Birthday Party (Pinter)
The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
The Pillowman (McDonagh)
The Trip to Bountiful (Foote)
Three Tall Women (Albee)
This is Our Youth (Lonergan)
True West (Shepard)
Waiting for Godot (Beckett)

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