Coming up with solid screenplay ideas that don’t suck is certainly important, but as a script reader too often I’ve seen story ideas derailed because of a crappy screenplay title.

So, in this column we’re gonna go over how to find a screenplay title that captures imaginations…and leads to hefty paychecks.

I’m not a good person.

I know this because not only do I constantly judge a book by its cover – and in these self publishing times that can tell you a lot – but 97.5% of the time I decide whether to see a movie based solely on its…

Title.

Not the trailer. (Those can be very deceptive.) Or the poster. (That tells me nothing.) Or the stars. (Unless Scarlett Johansson is starring.)

Nope, for me, it’s all about the title. So, I KNOW titles are important.

But many screenwriters think they need to WAIT to start writing until they have a title. Or aren’t sure even HOW to come up with a halfway decent title for their script.

So, here is a super-simple guide to creating a killer screenplay title:

Screenplay Title That Doesn’t Suck Tip #1: Name It Anything (It’ll Probably Change Anyway)

Titles are ALMOST always a marketing decision, after months of focus groups, development meetings, and overpriced lattes.

The examples are numerous but here are a couple of faves:

  • The original title for “Annie Hall” was “Anhedonia.” (Describe people who are clinically unable to be happy.)
  • Original title for “Halloween” was “The Babysitter Murders.”
  • Original title for “The Great Gatsby” – in what might be the WORST original title ever – was “Trimalchio at West Egg.”

And, in each of these cases, I would say, the movie was IMPROVED by the title change.

So, whatever you do, don’t WAIT till you find the perfect title before writing. (There’s little chance it’ll stay by the end.)

Screenplay Title That Doesn’t Suck Tip #2: Avoid Genre Norms

…that being said: having a good title can really help. Especially with queries and getting people interested in your script.

I can tell you, as a former script reader, I was always more jazzed by a title that seemed fresh and non-cliche. (Which might influence my coverage.)

And one of the quickest ways I know how to do this is to take your script genre’s accepted title format…and spin it on its ear.

For instance:

  • If you’re writing a thriller, avoid anything involving “heat” or condition that can be described as “fatal,” “sudden,” or “final.”
  • If you’re writing a comedy, avoid titles with song lyrics and cliched expressions. (They’ve all been used. There’s nothing new.)
  • If you’re writing a horror movie, try to avoid – if you can – anything filled with “terror,” “blood,” or “horror.” (Awww…but what fun is that?

Okay, so I’ve told you what you can’t do. How about what you can do.

How to evoke a new world with a screenplay title.

Screenplay titles work best when they evoke a word.

Screenplay Title That Doesn’t Suck Tip #3: Evoke a World (or Group of People)

It could be just me, but I love titles that evoke a place. (Whether physical or psychological.) Or a group of specific people.

Doesn’t matter what genre; I think fixing your story to some “otherworld” or “insider group” is exciting for the reader/viewer – and doesn’t come off as cheesy. It can work for:

  • Thriller – “Shutter Island”
  • Romance – “The Bridges of Madison County”
  • Comedy – “Bridesmaids

Note: Directors love scripts with place titles. Means they get to shoot on location.

 Screenplay Title That Doesn’t Suck Tip #4: When in Doubt, Be Funny (or Crazy)

And if you don’t know what to do…then just go all-out and be as weird or funny or wild as you can be.

My favorite example of this, and a script I actually got to read in development, was “American Pie.”

The original title for this script, when it circulated around town, was “Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy We Know They’ll Never Make.”

How cool is that? (Wish the movie was half as cool as that title.)

Another great example is the underground script “Van Damme vs. Segal” which is about, you guessed it, a feud between Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme.

By naming your script with a offbeat/funny title you give development folks a chance to brag about the scripts they read to their colleagues. And who knows…they just might like what they see enough to write you a check that will cure even the worst case of Anhedonia.

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About The Author

Michael Rogan
Editor, ScriptBully Magazine
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Michael Rogan is a former screenplay reader and optioned screenwriter. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of ScriptBully magazine, and has written a few non-sucky books including "How to Write a Book That Doesn't Suck (and Will Actually Sell)". He has made it his mission to help screenwriters kick ass - and rid the world of films based on action-figure lines.

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