Titles and character names go a long way to making your script stand out, either positively or negatively. Learn how to differentiate between the two.
Originally published in Script magazine November/December 2005 issue.
By Joel Haber
There are hundreds of things to consider when writing a spec script. Although titles and character names are not necessarily the highest ranking of those considerations, they remain extremely important details. While an evocative title or memorable character names are unlikely to sell a weak script, they can help a decent one gain attention. Conversely, a bad title or confusing and boring character names could definitely hinder your chances of selling your screenplay. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a film by another name can reek of inexperience and a lack of imagination and will likely not sell.
WHY FILMS HAVE TITLES
They say you only have one chance to make a first impression. Well, with a spec script this saying is particularly important to remember. We all know the odds against selling a spec, so we need to do everything we can to get our scripts read. The title of your film is the very first thing anyone will see; it is your first impression.
A title gives a snapshot of your film, delivering in a few words the idea of what your screenplay is about. But we would do well to also examine the specific purposes that a title serves.
In general, there are two main roles for a film’s title. Mainly, it serves as a marketing tool—communicating what the film is about and piquing the audience’s interest. For most of you reading this article, there is an even greater purpose. Production companies (or agencies) get hundreds of script submissions each year. Your title will be one of the first and easiest ways to catch that all-important executive’s eye long enough to have him make his assistant give your script a serious read.
So, what makes a good title? For starters, it should hint at the film’s premise, acting as an abbreviated thesis statement. Many of the more memorable titles out there could be described as “logline titles,” a restatement of the film’s concept in about three to five words. The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Dumb and Dumber. There’s even been a lot of talk lately about an upcoming Samuel L. Jackson film: Snakes on a Plane. Any wonder what that film is about?
Still, while those titles might work for more simple and popular fare, they may be too spot-on for most movies. Better titles also force us to think a bit about their meaning, often working on more than one level. They might include double entendres or could at least be a bit less obvious about their meanings. Liar Liar not only plays off the main character’s personality flaw and the hook of the film, but also recalls the childish taunt. Monster-in-Law’s title was one of its strongest elements, leading at least in part to the fierce bidding war that ended in its eventual sale.
Title length is also important. Most film titles are three to five words long, with some as short as one or two words. Though you may have to fight an uphill battle with a long title, it will almost certainly stick out in the pile of scripts waiting to be read. While I was not overly impressed with the screenplay, I still remember Does Anybody Here Remember When Hanz Gubenstein Invented Time Travel? (purchased by Ben Affleck and Neo Art & Logic) for its title alone.
Though the studio may eventually shorten your longer title, this possibility should not stop you from choosing one. These shortenings often hurt the film’s box-office performance, replacing distinctive titles with generic, throwaway ones. Many lament the change from Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip! to the boring It Could Happen To You. Bed of Roses performed poorly at the box-office as an offbeat romantic comedy, but its original title, the equally quirky Amelia and The King of Plants, might have appealed to the appropriate audience.
Another famous example is The Shawshank Redemption, based upon a Stephen King novella originally titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I’d argue that was a wise change to make from an artistic standpoint. In the book we can forget the Hayworth poster after its early mention—it would remain visible in the film, and we’d focus on it had Hayworth’s name remained in the title. This way, we were still surprised by the film’s ending. Regardless, the film’s title clearly remained a detriment to its theatrical success. No one knew what the title meant or referred to. Only in the ancillary markets, once word of mouth spread, did the film prove successful.
Good film titles should also be specific to your screenplay. It Could Happen To You was largely forgettable. Similarly, any number of teen movies have titles that could apply to … well, any number of teen movies. Who really remembers the difference between Bring It On and She’s All That, based upon their titles alone? For better or worse, most teen movies are disposable, geared to capitalize right now. A contemporary slang term helps reach that market. On the other hand, teen movies with a bit more to say still find some stronger titles—Saved or Mean Girls for example.
What’s the actual difference between a name such as Bring It On and one like Saved? Specificity. The latter plays off multiple levels of the film’s concept; it is both about the redemption its characters experience and a play on the Christian themes the film lampoons. Applied to a different film, the title would be confusing. Bring It On, however, is less specific. The title could apply to many different subjects. While the phrase does relate to this movie, it could just as easily work for another film of teen competition.
TITLES GONE BAD
We can learn almost as much from bad examples as from the good, so let’s look at a few more ways titles can be ruined. The broadest category of bad titles covers the overly generic, and thus vague. We often don’t even know what these titles really mean.
So, what makes a good title? For starters, it should hint at the film’s premise, acting as an abbreviated thesis statement. Many of the more memorable titles out there could be described as “logline titles,” a restatement of the film’s concept in about three to five words. The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Dumb and Dumber.
Frequently (though not exclusively), these are the ones I call “adjective- noun” titles. Titles such as Blue Steel, Chained Heat, Double Impact or a slew of third-rate, late-night cable sexploitation thrillers. Admittedly, these choices of titles are less problematic in those cable or direct-to-DVD films where they may, in fact, be preferable. As we’ll see later, a title must also be appropriate for its genre and audience, and such titles are the norm in the B-movie world.
Another common title type is the film named after a popular song. Whether done by the writer or the studio, it is primarily for marketing purposes. Can’t Buy Me Love (not coincidentally a teen movie) memorably made such a change in 1987. Supposedly, the studio thought teens would be less likely to go see a film titled Boy Rents Girl, the perfectly witty original title. Instead, they paid lots for the rights to The Beatles’ title and song. Since then, we’ve seen Addicted To Love, Boys Don’t Cry, Lean on Me, and When a Man Loves a Woman, among others. While these song titles somewhat relate to the films, they are far from the best possible titles. To a certain degree, they even work against the purpose of a film title to begin with. A title should signify the film and help the potential audience remember it. These titles evoke the original songs more than the films themselves.
A title must also be appropriate for the audience, market, genre and medium of the work. While Shawshank’s title worked well for a book, it was less appropriate for a theatrical film. Similarly, if a direct-to-DVD action film were named something like The Scarlet Pimpernel, it would alienate the genre’s core market more interested in a title that is less literary and in some way references explosions.
Finally, many film titles are named for a central character. Such titles can go either way. It’s fine to call your film Ray, for example, when the film is a biopic of the famous musician. Also, if the film’s main character has a unique and memorable name, it could also work as a title, such as Edward Scissorhands. But what about when the title is a bland name that evokes no specific feelings in the potential audience? While Jerry Maguire is certainly a film about its titular character, the title tells us nothing about the film. We have no idea that it’s set in the world of sports agents or that it’s a romance, and we might even have a hard time remembering the title until we see the film. “Hey, are you planning to see that film Johnny MacIntyre?” Billy Elliot had similar problems. So, if you name your film after its central character, at least make sure that character has a memorable and meaningful name.
NAMING YOUR CHARACTERS
An enduring metaphor compares writing to giving birth. Since this comparison makes sense, the logical extension is to view ourselves as our characters’ parents. Just as future parents debate their babies’ names for months, we should put tremendous thought into our characters’ names.
Names have a power and significance. They can hint at the personality a character possesses or can help place a character’s ethnicity or setting. Even common names hold specific resonance, which is something writers need to be aware of when they are naming their characters.
While titles function in two main ways, character names affect the thoughts or attitudes of three distinct groups. They impact how your film will be received by an audience, and also by a reader. But, they also affect the writers themselves. We spend a lot of time reading and writing those names and thinking about the characters, so we should choose names that put us in the right frame of mind.
By far, the most common problem I see with character names in scripts I read is that they are bland on their own and confusing when aligned with other names in the script—scripts entirely populated by John, Tom and Tim, Cathy, Sue or Kim. By themselves, these names are boring; in conjunction with each other, they become fatally confusing. Too often I’ve read a script and had to look back to figure out something like whether Don was the main character or his brother was.
Clearly, this problem is exacerbated by weak distinctions in character voice and personalities. Don’t compound these problems with your characters’ names, especially by making them sound similar! If you have one character named Laura, please don’t name another Sara.
Names have a power and significance. They can hint at the personality a character possesses or can help place a character’s ethnicity or setting. Even common names hold specific resonance, which is something writers need to be aware of when they are naming their characters. Whether you connect the two or not, the name Diana will always remind many people of her mythological predecessor, the virgin goddess and huntress. If that name is inappropriate for your character, you might want to consider giving her a different name.
Other names are connected with their literal meanings and origins. Kirk means church, while names like Victor or Rose have even more obvious meanings. Some names have gained significance not through their initial meanings, but through others who have held the names. If a certain name is tied to a specific ethnicity or time and place, the stereotypical aspects of those elements become the name’s personality. Maggie will likely be a spunky, independent girl. Elizabeth might remind us of the prim English. How frequently do we hear the name Vinny and not think of mobsters?
At the same time, the meanings of names can easily lead to too obvious choices. Is there anything inventive about naming an innocent and pure girl Mary? Name your hero Leo and we won’t be at all surprised to learn he is courageous and strong. Try naming against expectations. A great example is Curly, as applied to the bald member of The Three Stooges. It might be interesting to have a prostitute named Virginia (though naming her Mary might too obviously play against type). How about if Vinny is a boring cog in a corporate machine? The conflict between expectations and reality engages the audience.
Character names should also be interesting on their own. Different characters in a film might have distinctive names due to their unique ethnic backgrounds, preventing confusion. The physical sound of a name or its look on a page can also suggest some aspects of personality. Names with many consonants or with peculiar spellings are often villains. Character names might also reference famous people, either as homage or to tap into the person’s best-known traits.
In one of my screenplays, I created a character who was a money-driven stock trader. Rich would have been too obvious a name but Chip worked, both for his WASP background and the reference to his gambling in the stock market. An artsy, hippieish black female character got the name Jolie, allowing her Earthmother nature to glow through. In a different script of mine, a Western, the young hero is named Zane. Since few names begin with a “Z,” this gained some immediate uniqueness. But it also was era-appropriate and served as a tribute to famous Western novelist Zane Grey.
I must point out that I’m not suggesting that all your characters should have offbeat names. Sometimes you want your character to be an “everyman” type. Such characters would seem odd with names like Acacia or Xander. I’m merely suggesting that you’d be wise to not give all of your characters common names, particularly confusing ones; when you do use common names, you should still be aware of their meanings. Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” The same should apply to the names we choose; they should be realistic, but not boring.
CREATING INTERESTING NAMES
Where do those interesting names come from? There are tons of sources for distinctive names. There are baby-naming books or websites, to start with. But, there are more sources from life itself. I heard of one person who finds odd names in the spam e-mail he gets every day. Some people look in the phone book or international newspapers and combine names of real people. And, just as some people keep lists of snippets of dialogue they’ve overheard, others note interesting names they’ve heard in real life. When I was younger, I used to work in construction during the summers. I will always remember seeing a list of laborers from a different site, one of whom was named Euripides Rivera. What a great combination of distinct cultures in that name! Many of you come across lists of names every day at your jobs. Take note of some of the more unique ones and mix and match them if you feel weird using the actual ones.
One technique that works well is to give your character a unique pairing in which he has a strange first name and a common last name, or vice versa. Jeff Lebowski in The Big Lebowski. Chinatown’s Jake Gittes. Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink. With this technique we are interested in and remember the character’s unique aspects, but the names are still grounded in reality.
There are even some great sources for that “unique” half of the pairings. One is to use a location name, tying the character’s personality to some aspect of that place. Guys and Dolls’ Nathan Detroit tapped into the gangster history of that famous city. Raiders of The Lost Ark’s Indiana Jones and Point Break’s Johnny Utah both place their heroes amidst white bread Americana. The short-lived Fox TV show Key West featured a character played by Jennifer Tilly named Savannah Sumner. The southern city’s name evoked images of sultry hospitality in a hot and steamy atmosphere, appropriate for her character’s call-girl personality.
We also must decide how our characters will be referenced in our scripts. We’d react differently if, when reading the script for Raiders of The Lost Ark, we saw the central character referred to as Indiana, as Jones or as Indiana Jones—using his full name. He could also have been referenced as Indy or Dr. Jones. Titles can help us to view a character with authority, while using the character’s last name might demean the character somewhat. Lisa Simpson talks to “Principal Skinner,” but Superintendent Chalmers always calls him simply “Skinner!”
Nicknames also can play a role both in relating character and serving plot purposes. Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski was nicknamed “The Dude” not only to reveal the laid-back nature of his character, but also to distinguish him from the “big” Lebowski with whom he shares a name. Frequently, child characters have peculiar names that are hidden with a more “normal sounding” nickname. The revelation of the actual name might serve some plot purpose, as well. Maybe the kid’s parents were obsessed with Duke Ellington and named their daughter with his last name. She might go by Elli until, at an opportune moment, her full name is revealed.
Similarly, name cues in your screenplay can deliver certain information or emotions to the reader. Just as a mysterious character may only become identified later in a film, we can begin by referring to a certain character as TALL MAN or THE DARK WOMAN and only later reveal the character’s name (as long as our transition doesn’t confuse the reader). Alex Epstein, author of Crafty Screenwriting, suggests using character cues to deliver information about minor characters as well. Instead of lazily referring to COP #1 and COP #2, call them FAT COP or SARCASTIC COP. This technique allows us, as writers, to get more mileage within the confines of the relatively strict screenplay format.
The bottom-line, however, is to ensure that your character names are neither boring nor confusing. Give your female characters “feminine sounding” last names, and masculine ones to your men. Vary your starting letters, syllabic length and ethnic origins. Whenever possible, make the names memorable and meaningful. Similarly, choose pithy appropriate titles for your film overall. With these elements you’ll help your screenplay stand out as one that effectively uses all the tools at your disposal.
Get tips on more than just a name in Alex Epstein’s book
Craft Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made