Friday, March 22, 2013

Aspiring Advice: Titles: The Embodiment of Stories

I'm going to touch on something a little close to home this week.

For some of us writers, titles are a bane to our existence. We have this super cool idea, want to make it into a story (and even start writing the first few chapters), but what on earth are we going to call this story? It can be a really tough choice to make sometimes.

For one, we want to avoid a title that's already been used, or is widely known (I don't think  anyone can get away with titling their book Twilight anytime soon ...). Secondly, if there is a unique match, what does it say about the story? I know some who don't stress the title-making part. They may simply slap something on the cover because the story needs one, which is fine ... and that can totally work.

For me, title-making runs a little deeper. It stems from something I learned in my aspiring animation days: "Your title should embody the story - someone should be able to look at the title and know exactly what the story is about before the (book, movie, show) starts."

Wise words from a great mentor, although I'd like to add to that. You may not have to know exactly what the story's about before it starts, but it should be crystal clear why it's called that by the time it's over.

Earlier this week, we had the Top Ten Movie Countdown Blogfest. I decided to do an all-animation list. While reading through the fest, I noticed a mention of Brave, that people had "given the film grief," and that they did not understand why. I can explain that, more for what happened behind the scenes (Pixar did, after all, fire Brenda Chapman from the production ... who created the story ... and was Pixar's first female director, and, in my opinion, was given the Oscar as a means of damage control), but I'm only going to talk about it's bold title.

It looks nice, but for me, this doesn't work. Why's that, you ask?

I'll go over a few other Pixar titles and explain why they do work.

(Before I go on, let me quickly clarify that I did enjoy Brave's story and it's message - we really are in serious need of stories like this).

Toy Story ... it's a story about toys. It works!

Monsters, Inc. ... a cooperation run by monsters. It works!

Finding Nemo ... a father searches for his son, Nemo. It works!

The Incredibles ... a superhero famliy (Mr. Incredible marries Elastigirl, becomes Mrs. Incredible, and the kids are Incredibles). It works!

Cars ... it's a story about ... cars. Simple enough, and it works!

Ratatouille ... it's a French word, and the film takes place in Paris. Ratatouille is a dish - the film is about cooking. The protagonist is ... a rat, hence Ratatouille. A TRIPLE meaning ... it totally works!

Brave ... it's about a mother and daughter relationship.

Wait, what does "brave" have anything to do with that?

For me, in short, nothing at all.

In fact, if you watch the film again, pay attention to when the word "brave" is used. Four times. The first instance when the father spoke of the falls in the beginning, "They say only the Ancient Kings were brave enough to drink the fire," then, during a flashback, "Brave little girl," then during Merida's speech to the men, "Yours was an alliance forged in bravery and friendship and it lives to this day," and again, at the end, "Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it." Kinda feels like a thrown-in sentiment rather than the theme of the story. Let's be honest. Was Brave about bravery?

I don't think so. The film is about a mother/daughter relationship.

But did you know that Brave wasn't always called that?

THIS the original title, and might I say, it's a much more fitting title. The Bear is the mother and the Bow is the daughter. The story is about the relationship between a mother and daughter, and it works! Why the title change, I have no idea, but it would not surprise me if it had a part in the "creative differences" that eventually sacked Brenda.

I could go on about Hollywood politics and what some friends of mine in the industry have said about what happened over Brave (more livid than I was), but that's not why I'm here. This is only an example. I would also like to say that I am especially proud of Brenda for how she handled the situation. She's an excellent example of how to be when a situation goes beyond our control. Much applause, Brenda.

Now wait just a second, Dave! Didn't Disney also change "Rapunzel" to "Tangled?" Weren't you at all upset about that title change?


I was at first. Why mess with a classic and break from the norm of all the other Disney fairy tales? However, in the first minute of the film, it's clear the story is told by Flynn. We've got a retelling here, about two characters, with their own arcs, which means this isn't all about Rapunzel anymore. It's about a thief who gets "tangled," literally and figuratively, in Rapunzel's plan to see the floating lights. It works!

Let's shift back to books. The same principle applies. If we struggle to come up with a title, then let me ask you this: "Do you know what your story is about?" Maybe we have an idea, but we haven't sat down and thought it through yet. If I like an idea enough, I'll stew over it, find the story's "center" and name it accordingly, and hope that the title isn't already taken. If it has been used, I would take the idea and look at it from another angle until something else works.

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. A title is like the ultimate short synopsis, a short word or line that represents the entire story, the embodiment to the message you wish to present. Like notes on a music sheet or words on the page, there are endless possibilities for titles, but if we know what our story is about, and the story is unique, coming up with a title may be that much easier.

*     *     *

That concludes my posts for March. I know the April A to Z Challenge is upon us, and I wish you all luck to those who are participating. If I didn't have so many goals to take care of on my end, I would join, so here's looking to next year. Thanks again for another great month!

Be sure to visit back on the 27th, when I will interview our 3rd Knight of the Cosmic Table. You won't want to miss this "fiery" exchange!

What are your thoughts on titles? Which ones have really worked for you? Which ones haven't? What is your title-making process?

I'm David, and THIS is what I call, "es-car-go!"


  1. The original title for Brave does sound better. It's probably some marketing people who don't think it "tests" well enough with audiences. Anyway, I rip off most of my titles from songs. Good thing titles can't be trademarked!

  2. The title didn't work for me either, as it had little to do with the story.
    I'm not great with titles, but I've been really happy with the three for my books. Each one does pertain to the contents. And the best thing of all? No competition! Google any of the titles or go on Amazon, and my books come up as the only thing out there. That just rocks!

  3. Awesome post, DPK! Titles are hard because they need to do what you say and they also need to be catching so they help sell the book.

    Loved that video. You made me smile.

  4. anything with the words 'shadow' or 'dragon' catches my eye for some reason.

    Single-word titles seem the way to go. Examples: Trapped, Hunted, Cursed, Tricked, Hexed, Chosen, Untamed. Maybe they explain it all in one or two syllables?

    I liked Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman which pretty much tells the whole darn story.
    CD Coffelt ponders at Spirit Called
    And critiques at UnicornBell

  5. I love The Bear and the Bow. That would have been a wonderful title. Book titles are a big deal to me and I agree that by the end, the reader should know what it means. I feel the same way about covers in general. It's a promise made to the reader and when the story doesn't fulfill that promise, I get a little mad.

  6. Brave was the first Pixar movie I didn't really care for. It's not that I dislike it, I just didn't like it all that much. Part of the problem was that Merida didn't grow as a character in the movie. She is at the same spot at the end as she was in the beginning. The mother is the one that changes. Basically, the movie didn't strike me as very brave, which I said in my review of it.

    On an unrelated related note, I've always said that I might have actually like Burton's Batman if he had just called it Joker.

  7. I don't know about you, but I'm planning on calling my next story Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

    As for Brave, I honestly don't think the title was the worst part of that movie. There were just so many disconnects.

  8. I've heard a lot of authors don't even get to keep their title, so I try not to fix on it too hard. Most of the time the title doesn't even come to me until after I have finished the first draft.

  9. Awesome post. You'd be amazed at how many titles are the same if you search on Goodreads. When I do for my author interviews, most of the time there is more than one book with the same or similar title. I sometimes struggle with titles until the inspiration hits.

    I'm not doing A-Z Challenge either. It doesn't work with our blog schedule. I'll be visiting though.

  10. I wanted to call this WIP Pride & Prejudice, but evidently it's already taken :D

    I never saw Brave, but I definitely would not have guessed that it's about a mother/daughter relationship from the title.

    See you in April!

  11. I think a title has to (as you rightly quoted) embody the story or have the spirit or heart of the story. Sometimes it can be really peculiar for intrigue and not fit the story at all or fit it in an 'outside the box' kind of way.

  12. Veru thought provoking post - thanks for the es -car-go. My son calls them key-go because he can't say escargot yet ;)

  13. Excellent post, DPK! I love looking into topics like this. :)

  14. Great post, and titles really are the bane of my life. I spend hours agonising over them. And the odd times that I've tried writing from a title prompt, the story ends up being abandoned on the grounds of it being rubbish!

  15. I liked the title Brave on the surface, but once you explained it...not so much. Great post!

  16. I hate titles and can never seem to give my stories a good name. Thanks for this good advice and for the record, Brave was the worst Pixar film. Totally disappointed me.

  17. I never liked the title Brave and didn't see what brave had to do with anything within the story. Your reasoning is logic and I see your point. I'll keep it in mind when I come with the final title for my book.

  18. The Bear and the Bow sounds so much better, and it totally makes sense. Man, Pixar should have stuck with that.

  19. Titles are a pain. I usually have a "pet" title for my works and then put on a real title later. I know in publishing traditionally, authors usually have no power over their titles. One of the guys in my critique group is so into titles that he uses titles that mean one thing at the beginning and have a completely different meaning by the time you get to the end of his story. He's amazing.

  20. Regarding Tangled: I believe they changed the name to Tangled at the same time they changed the initial POV from Rapunzel's to Flynn's. (which they did because they they were afraid a female POV wouldn't sell as well, to which there was a huge firestorm of women saying boys should man up and be able to watch movies/read books with POVs of both gender because girls already have to do that. Supposedly there are more girl readers and yet there are more male POVs. But that's a whole other discussion) So it's possible that the original title fit the original story. I do like Tangled though. There are a lot of nuances in that title.

  21. My titles spill out and once they're here, they can't leave!

  22. I suppose the title of Brave worked for me in a different way as I saw Merida as a character brave in her actions to go against traditions and expectations of her position. I saw the mother/daughter relationship as secondary and that there was a change on the mother's part to be more open to what her daughter truly desired and not just what duty demanded of her.

    But that's just my take on it :-)

    I hadn't really considered the name change for Rapunzel all that much. It really did seem pretty clear that Flynn got tangled, in many ways, with Rapunzel, her hair and her dreams.

    I've had story ideas that formed from the title that hit me. Others, like Neverlove, came after the story formed and, like you, I went with what was one of the central themes of the story. And in Neverlove, it's literally about that never love.

  23. I'm going to echo Angela's take. Merida had to look beyond the tower and walls she always thought were her rightful home. She had to hang on to dreams she'd almost forgotten and dare to dream again. She had to defy the mother, rules and life she'd always thought were her truth. She was... in a word, brave. So I liked the title much more than the first once.

    But yes, beyond that, I think titles are very important, and I think I suck at coming up with them. Sigh.

  24. I'm going through hell finding a title for my manuscript, because your right. The title is important and it needs to fit the book. Great post.

  25. I'm sorry but I like the title Brave better, I get your opinion though, most of Pixar's movies worked better with their title and theme. Turbo is something I've been looking out for, hope it's a great film.

  26. I think I might have actually watched Brave if it had that title. Brave didn't really mean anything to me. Thanks for the heads up.

  27. I'd actually be able to remember The Bear and the Bow. I'm always forgetting the movie is called Brave. Yeah, not sure what happened with that title.

  28. I get you on the titles. I hate them - hate coming up with them. Sometimes I have a title and write a story around it. But mostly I have a story, and then have to come up with a title.

    I have a trilogy: book one is titled Not Her Mothers Fate and follows the theme of a young woman trying not to follow in her mothers disasterous decisions; book two is still book two because the story theme suggests Running for a title (he goes on drug benders called "runs", he's a drug runner, he runs from the police, she is running from her past) but title implies an athletic story; and book three is titled Enduring Freedom because he is released from prison, she has to decided between two loves, and the story is set during the events of 9/11.

    Titles are very important, and like Brave, I think a bad title can ruin the effectiveness of a good story. Covers and titles both should depict story content.

    On a lighter note; when I first saw the ads for Wall-E I was sure I'd never watch the movie. But somehow I ended up seeing it with my grandkids, and as the story progressed I decided that the title was such a perfect fit, even though it gave nothing away on story line. Sometimes, a title has to develop with the story to be understood.

    Maybe that's what the creators were thinking with Brave?


  29. Titles are so important. I agree that they should embody the story and leave a reader in no doubt what their significance to the story is. I have noticed that titles are often one word, especially popular with YA alternatively quite long. Which works best - I don't know but I hope I get it right!

    Interesting post and some great debate here.

  30. I think coming up with the prefect title is one of the hardest things. I can't comment on Brave since I haven't seen it but I think the title Brave draws people in more than the Bear and the Bow, imho.

  31. I also enjoy the title "The Bear and the Bow" much more than "Brave". My disappointment with the movie reflects largely on the title; I didn't feel that there was anything that she did that could be seen as "brave". However I can see why the title "Brave" could have more appeal to the general public. I also didn't like that "Rapunzel" was called "Tangled" until I just now read what you wrote above, and now it works for me.

  32. What a fantastic post David. I totally agree (though I never saw Brave...) But I just recently saw Tangled. SO good!

    I LOVE titles. I love coming up with titles. Usually they come easily for me, but the most recent one i finished did not. We're pretty happy with what we came up for now though :)

  33. I haven't seen it, but they probably went with Brave because it was short, and most of their titles were short and to the point. How to Train Your Dragon proved that wrong though.

    Short titles work best for fiction, longer ones for non-fiction.

  34. A truly fascinating post, David!
    I haven't yet seen Brave, but Tangled was brilliant.
    I actually prefer that to the title 'Rapunzel.'

  35. Titles can definitely be a pain. My current one is titled "Project K" because I can't think of a good title, though it has nothing to do with projects or the letter K, it's my working title. I didn't really care for the title of Brave too. The Bear and the Bow sounds better, but it is longer. Kids like one to two world titles, easier to remember.

    I like the list of Disney titles - very fitting!

    Now if I could only name my current WIP... hmm...

    Great post!

  36. Love this post, both the advice you give and the Disney examples you shared!

  37. Great post. There's a lot to consider in a title.

  38. I also have a thing about titles, so I try not to worry about them until I've written the story. Otherwise I'd never start.

    But I must say that the name Brave and the trailer gave me a completely different impression of the movie.

  39. I had no idea about the name change for Brave. Definitely think The Bead & The Bow would have been better, though it is a bit f a mouthful :) Loved that movie. Great points on titles--they are so important! And, I'll admit, finding the perfect one is such a high!

  40. Love the movie choices Dave! And yes, titles are always tough to come up with. I even have trouble coming up with titles to blog posts lol.

  41. Great point on titles, I'm kind of there myself right now, trying to come up with a good one for a new project:)

  42. I think I like Bear and the Bow much better too. I thought Brave was so-so at best. The first half was pretty good, and it just kinda fell apart in the second half before turning around and improving again towards the end.

    That big middle part of the movie was a bit terrible.