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How to Find a Great Title to your Screenplay

Naming Your Baby: How to Find a Great Title to your Screenplay
by Gordy Hoffman

How exactly does one work on the title of their screenplay? I recently came up with such a wonderful idea for a movie, one of those miraculous moments, like finding money on the sidewalk. I told somebody, and they said, ďGreat. Whatís the title?Ē Suddenly, and rather horrifyingly, my beauty of an idea is crippled. Instant orphaned bastard! You wanna strangle the person. You feel insulted. Whatís the title!? Why would you even ask that, like, right after I told you this incredible gem?

Well, of course they would ask that. Every movie needs a name. But unlike nearly every other aspect of screenwriting, there are no techniques to titling your script. We can practice the three act structure, workshop our dialogue, check the arcs of our characters, but what craft is there to naming your movie?

The first movie I wrote that was made was entitled LOVE LIZA. The movie was about a man whose wife has committed suicide. She has left him a note, and the movie is the story of his struggle to open this letter and read her final words. I remember finding this title fairly quickly, the name clearly referencing an element of the letter left behind. But what I found to be most interesting about this title was the lack of punctuation----the title wasnít LOVE, LIZA. When the press kits started to be put together, I had to keep reminding everyone there was no comma between LOVE and LIZA. The comma-less title takes on a different meaning in the context of the movie. I was lucky to find a title that meant one thing before you watched the movie, and meant something else after youíre done.

Sometimes titles come long before the screenplay has even started. I have come up with great titles that have no idea at all behind them. They function as stakes in the ground. I got so angry with someone for complaining about the shoes I was wearing that I vowed to write a movie called WRONG SHOES. Soon after, I came up with an idea of a girl taking her video camera to her cousinís bachelorette party, and starting casting, with an intention to write, develop and workshop the screenplay, WRONG SHOES, with the cast. Once we got into the second draft of the screenplay, the title, WRONG SHOES, didnít fit the tone of the story, and we found another, and renamed the movie, A COAT OF SNOW. This title strikes people a myriad of ways, and even after watching the movie, the audience is left to fit its significance.

So how do you get a great title to your screenplay? Well, the first thing you gotta do to find the great movie title is write a screenplay. You can find a great title before you write a screenplay, but then you donít really have a title problem, you have a missing screenplay problem. I asked a flight attendant once what the snack they just handed me tasted like and they said, ďPlane food.Ē I loved that. I thought, that would be a great title for a movie. Who knows what the story is, but there it is, a great title. But no script.

Letís say you have an idea, you have your outline, or your scribbling on napkins, polaroids, whatever, and youíre ready to start writing. Do you need a title right now? Of course not and why not. If itís gonna distract you and make you miserable and pull your focus, you should definitely not worry about a title at all. The reason itís distracting you is because the writing of your screenplay is making you uncomfortable. So if youíre fretting about what to call your movie before youíve started writing, you donít have a problem with a missing title, you have a writing problem.

If youíre ready to sit down and start writing, and picking a title isnít gonna make you crazy, go ahead and make one up. Writing a screenplay is a long, hard path, and putting a name on your work is good. What do you call the name of your labor? Itís called a working title. Working titles, like WRONG SHOES, get you working on your screenplay. Working titles often get swept away later by a much richer name. Working titles allow you to function, reminding us that everything we put down on paper is not final. I often wait to work and become immobilized by wanting something to be perfect RIGHT NOW. It doesnít work that way. Creation is mysterious, and like great endings, titles come to us on the road to something else. Working titles function as a lamp to that road. We are in play.

Letís say youíre done with your draft and your title still doesnít feel right. Itís been your working title for a while now, and itís worked, but you know thereís something missing, and you need the real one. Well, if youíre thinking about a good title and you donít have a good title, then your screenplay needs a lot of work. Itís time to let it sit for three weeks, then give yourself another raft of notes. You can drive around in your car and think about how your movie ends, or what itís called, and you might think a light bulb goes off, and youíve got the great title, but itís only a sign of discomfort with story.

I write something now and donít know what itís called, but I have a working title, which doesnít work so much, so I often call it ďmy next movie.Ē I know the absence of a good idea forces me forward to the greatness that lies ahead. I know from my experience that my fumbling in the dark for everything, story, title, ending, line, is the hard, true and honest work of real writing. How can I sit through this? I want to know what my title is, and I want it to be magnificent. In the end, itís called patience.

About the Author
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival for LOVE LIZA, Gordy Hoffman wrote and directed three short films for Fox Searchlight in 2002. He made his feature directorial debut with his script, A COAT OF SNOW which world premiered at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival. A COAT OF SNOW made its North American Premiere at the Arclight in Hollywood, going on†to screen at the Milan Film Festival and the historic George Eastman House. Recently, the movie won the 2006 Domani Vision Award at VisionFest, held at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York. A former professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Gordy is the founder and judge of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. For more articles written by Gordy Hoffman on screenwriting, visit:

BlueCatís Movie Title Contest Deadline August 1st!

After years of discovering incredible movie titles throughout the thousands of submissions weíve received, BlueCat has decided to have some fun with your wonderfully named screenplaysÖ

Every screenplay entered in the BlueCat Screenplay Competition by August 1st is automatically entered in our Movie Title Contest, where the three top titles will be awarded $250, as voted on by current BlueCat entrants. ††


Other Competition Prizes:

Grand Prize: $10,000
Four Finalists: $2000 each
Best Screenplay from UK: $1000
Best Screenplay from outside the UK, US and Canada: $1000

Every entry receives written two written script analyses.

Entry fee $60.

BlueCat Screenplay Competition
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