Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Ideally, like a movie tagline, an effective title should snare its reader’s attention, suggest the novel’s or film’s genre, indicate the type of monster or other threat, promise enjoyment, and have aesthetic appeal. Although it is difficult for single-word titles to accomplish such a three-fold task, it is possible. Pyscho is an attention-grabber, suggesting that the movie that bears this title is apt to be a horror film, indicates that the threat is that which to be posed by a madman, and promises a display of madness and mayhem. The Exorcist gets prospective audiences’ attention, suggests horror as its film’s genre, and promises an appearance not only of an exorcist but of a demon to exorcise and of a victim from whom to cast out the devil.
In addition to accomplishing the tasks of snaring the reader’s attention, suggesting the story’s genre, and promising enjoyment, a good title should be pleasing to the ear. Some examples of titles that accomplish this goal are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (use of alliteration), The Bride of Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (use of allusion), and Stephen King’s The Storm of the Century and Wes Cravens’ The Hills Have Eyes (use of common phrases).
A good story title may accomplish other ends as well. Although titles may not, in so many words, express what is at stake in the battle between good and evil that occurs in most horror novels and movies, it may do so. For example, The Exorcist suggests that an individual’s soul is at stake. H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds suggests that the fate of the Earth itself is at issue. The movie Independence Day implies that liberty--a value sacrosanct--to the American public which would make up a huge segment of the film’s presumed audience--is in peril.
Other titles suggest both the nature of the beast and its habitat: It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Alien, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Most titles ignore the question of “Why?” (saving the answers, if any, to this bigger concern for the novel or movie itself) and concentrate on more immediate questions such as those which involve the agent (“Who?” or “What”?), the setting (“When?” and “Where”), and the method, process, or technique (“How?”). By reserving the answer to “Why?” for the story itself to resolve, writers maintain the suspense that, hopefully, their titles have created.
For motives related to the foreign release of films and for other reasons, the same horror movie may be released under two or more titles, offering one the opportunity to compare and contrast the titles with an eye (and mind) toward determining which seems more effective and why. Such an exercise can make one more cognizant both of more effective and less effective techniques for creating titles and may disclose the subtle differences in how various audiences perceive stories and storytelling and clues as to what may offend one audience but not another. For example, Planet of the Vampires was also released under the alternate titles of Demon Planet, Planet of Blood, Space Mutants, Terror in Space, The Haunted Planet, The Haunted World, The Outlawed Planet, The Planet of Terror, and The Planet of the Damned.
If a writer wants to pack even more into his or her title, he or she can add a subtitle.
A good way, of course, to learn what makes good titles is to study those of well-established writers and directors such as, in the field of horror, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, Bentley Little, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, James Rollins, H. G. Wells, Frank Peretti, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, George Romero, and Tobe Hooper.
A lot goes into a carefully written title because a lot is expected from it.