Screenwriting: The Science of Story Titles

Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Blog, Marketing, Screenwriting
Screenwriting: The Science of Story Titles


When it comes to screenwriting, we all know nothing is more important than a great story, but what else matters?  One word comes to mind: marketing.  There are many areas of marketing to explore, but let’s dissect the topic of movie titles.

Something to consider: If people aren’t motivated to watch the film created from your amazing script, then you’ve already failed.

Have you ever heard of the KISS Principle?  It’s a design principle championed by the U.S. Navy.  The word KISS (all caps) is an acronym for a well-known mantra that you’ve likely heard:

“Keep it simple, stupid.” — Kelly Johnson

With that mantra in mind, the biggest thing I’ve noticed about famous movie titles is the following: simplicity.

Many of the biggest films either consist of 1-word titles or are generally known by a single word.

1-Word Movie Titles

  • Avatar
  • Titanic
  • Inception
  • Batman
  • Superman
  • Spider-Man
  • Transformers
  • Ghostbusters
  • Armageddon
  • Twilight
  • Thor
  • Skyfall
  • Gravity
  • Alien
  • X-Men
  • Se7en
  • Godzilla

“Avatar” & “Titanic,” the top 2 movies of all time, are the only ones to gross over 2-billion-dollars at the worldwide box office.  There are plenty of popular movies w/ more than 1 word in their respective titles that are still simple, though.

2-Word Movie Titles

  • The Avengers
  • Captain America
  • Iron Man
  • Star Wars
  • The Matrix
  • Star Trek
  • The Terminator
  • Mission Impossible
  • Casino Royale
  • Harry Potter
  • Home Alone
  • Forrest Gump
  • Jurassic Park
  • Independence Day
  • The Hangover
  • The Exorcist
  • The Conjuring

3-Word Movie Titles

  • The Dark Knight
  • The Hunger Games
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • The Bourne Identity
  • Men in Black
  • I Am Legend
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Meet the Fockers
  • World War Z

Movie Titles w/ 4 or 5 Words

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • War of the Worlds
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Night at the Museum
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Story Titles of Popular Animated Movies

  • Frozen
  • Shrek
  • Up
  • Cars
  • Tangled
  • WALL-E
  • Ratatouille
  • Toy Story
  • Despicable Me
  • Finding Nemo
  • Ice Age
  • The Incredibles
  • The Croods
  • The Smurfs
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • The Lion King
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • How to Train Your Dragon

Besides simplicity, what else do you notice about these titles?

Key Elements of Marketable Movie Titles

  • Simple
  • Easy to Remember
  • Low Syllable Count
  • Cool
  • Catchy
  • Creative

Movie titles should always be simple so people can say them properly and effectively. Film titles should be easy to remember for 1 reason: word of mouth.  Do you want people to chat about your movie?  Titles are easier to say and remember when there are less syllables to pronounce.  “Thor” is one syllable; it doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Realistically, your story title will probably be more than 1 syllable, but less is always more.

Most titles from popular movies are cool, catchy & creative, but simple and to the point.  Lets look at 6 examples:

“Alien” is called that because there’s an actual alien on the spaceship in the movie that drives the plot.  Everyone on board is trying to avoid being killed by this hostile creature.  Pretty basic, right?  It may not seem very creative, but “Alien” is cool, catchy and concise as a title.

This is a description of “Gravity” from IMDB: ‘A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after a catastrophe destroys their shuttle and leaves them adrift in orbit.’  After this catastrophe, the Sandra Bullock character is left floating in space as she struggles to survive, which is a challenge because of the whole gravity thing.

A description of “The Terminator” from IMDB: ‘A human-looking, indestructible cyborg is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all costs.’  Basically, the plot is driven by the fact that a cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent to kill a waitress (played by Linda Hamilton) who is the only person with the power to save the human race from extinction.  The cyborg is sent to earth to ‘terminate’ the waitress.  “The Terminator” is a good example of a title that is catchy, cool & creative.  What if the movie had been named “Cyborg?”  That definitely would not have been as cool, catchy or creative.

A movie title like “Se7en,” is a great example of simplicity & creativity joining forces.  The film is about 2 detectives (played by Brad Pitt & Morgan Freeman) who are hunting down a serial killer who uses the 7 deadly sins as motives to kill his victims; each victim in the story is guilty of 1 deadly sin.  The screenwriter, for example, could have named the movie “Seven Deadly Sins,” but simply went w/ the name, “Se7en.”  Additionally, he decided to have a little fun and combine the word ‘seven’ w/ the numeric character ‘7.’

“Titanic” is a great example of a story title that isn’t creative, but clearly a no-brainer.  Arguably, the Titanic is the most famous ship to ever sink.  The name itself is very catchy and memorable.  Furthermore, the whole story takes place on this ship.  Sometimes… there’s no need to be creative, but simply smart.  Keep it simple, stupid!

The movie “Avatar” is called that because the human characters in this tale use avatars to infiltrate the inhabitants of a foreign world.  Through the use of an avatar, the main character is able to bond w/ the Na’vi people.  These avatars play an important role in the plot of the film, so it’s no wonder why James Cameron chose “Avatar” as a title.  Something to also note is the widespread use of avatars by internet users & gamers.  Besides, it’s a pretty cool word.

Story Titles That Fail

  • The Men Who Stare at Goats
  • Did You Hear About the Morgans?
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  • To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
  • The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” & “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”  What’s compelling about these titles?  Nothing at all.  Why would you want to watch a movie about men who stare at goats?  The name may be a metaphor of sorts, but if the screenwriter was too lazy to come up w/ a strong movie title, then what else is lacking?  What about the Morgans?  The title is not interesting and it seems like someone was trying to hard (or not enough) to spark my curiosity.  In this case, asking a question is not enough.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” fails because the title uses complicated words that may be hard to pronounce and/or remember.  Many people will not have the ability or desire to figure out the intent of such a title.  The high syllable count in the word ‘imaginarium’ doesn’t help much either.

The last 2 titles are too long, lack appeal, and don’t effectively encapsulate the heart of the story.  Well, I have no idea what the heart of each story is, but do I honestly care at this point?  The last one seems like it might be symbolic, but lacks creativity and specificity.  Would you be able to remember the last 2 extraordinarily long movie titles?

Movie Title Elements Not to Overlook

  • Metaphors
  • Symbolism
  • Psychology
  • Word Play

Look at the movie “The Hunger Games.”  The title is a metaphor and symbolizes many things that are related to each other.  The IMDB description: ‘Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the “Hunger Games,” a televised fight to the death in which 2 teenagers from each of the 12 Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete.’

In “The Hunger Games,” there can only be 1 survivor.  All the competing characters are locked away at a protected location where they can potentially starve to death before someone gets a chance to kill them (if they can survive that long).  Most of the people from these 12 districts don’t have much food to begin with and could potentially starve anyways.  The characters have a hunger to survive, win and create a better world for themselves and their families.  They have a hunger to end the brutal dictatorship ruling over them.  As you can see, there’s a lot of ‘hunger’ going on in this story.

Another movie title worth examining is “The Hangover.”  You may not be aware of it, but psychology comes to play here.  This comedy is a buddy film pandering to younger audiences, particularly males, who want to enjoy some cheap laughs.  How many of you know what it’s like to be drunk and experience a hangover, especially w/ friends?  It’s obvious how much alcohol is consumed by young people these days.

“The Hangover” is a fun title that invites people to remember those entertaining times they had drinking w/ their buddies and acting stupid.  Technically, ‘hangover’ refers to the unpleasant state you experience after drinking too much (nausea, dizziness, headache, fatigue, etc.), but I suspect that word play is at hand.  Since the film in question is a buddy flick, the hangover seems to reference hanging out.  Coincidence?  I think not.  This definitely falls into the category of creative marketing.

Did you know that the film “While You Were Sleeping” was originally titled “Coma Guy?”  Would you watch that?  This is a good one: “The Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night” eventually became “Saturday Night Fever.”  Now that’s an amazing story title change if I ever saw one.  In screenwriting, a little imagination goes a long way!

You might find this article interesting:

13 Best and Worst Movie Title Changes

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