Regular readers of our recent posts will know the answer to this cry for help already.

Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn"

Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn”

Theme.

Theme is a golden highway to a great title.

Consider Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan. The story is about a young Irish girl who emigrates from the Auld Sod in the early 50s and winds up in Brooklyn. After a period of struggle and assimilation she starts to find her way professionally, meets a wonderful young guy, accepts his proposal of marriage. Wow, things are going great!

A family tragedy compels her to return briefly to Ireland. Once there, her newfound American self-confidence makes her attractive to certain socially-connected individuals who might have overlooked her charms in the past. The next thing we know, our heroine is relapsing into her old, self-diminishing, allowing-herself-to-be-exploited ways. Another suitor proposes, she says yes … OMG, in the audience we’re cringing. No, Saoirse, don’t fall for it!

I won’t spoil the ending, if you haven’t seen the movie. Let’s ask instead, “What’s the theme? What is this story about?”

It’s about finding the courage to leave an old familiar world that, if we remain under its spell, will destroy our soul and our chance at self-actualization and happiness—and to venture forth (and make our home in) a new land, where true happiness and love are actually possible.

What is the name of that new land?

Brooklyn.

Voila, our title!

Another place-name that became an iconic title: Chinatown. Again because it’s on-theme.

The final line of the movie—“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”—sums up all the corruption, cupidity, and just plain evil that lurk beneath the otherwise-attractive surface of things. In other words, the theme.

The story of an astronaut stranded on an alien orb could easily have been titled Marooned or Lost Among the Stars. What made The Martian an outstanding title (aside from its succinctness and provocativeness) was that it captured the novel’s theme—salvation comes from thinking like a whole different species of being.

Mud was a terrific title, as was Wild, The Boys in the Boat, Just Kids, not to mention The Big Short, Still Alice, Straight Outta Compton and of course Star Wars.

A great title (as Shawn wrote in his recent post, What’s in a Title?) has to hit a number of beats. It has to be provocative. It has to stop the reader and grab her interest. It has to be memorable and unique and it has to communicate the book or movie’s genre. If our novel is a love story, it can’t have a title that makes it sound like a mystery or a police procedural.

But an excellent way to start our search for a compelling title is to ask ourselves, “What is the book’s theme? What’s it about?”

With luck we might come up with Crime and Punishment or The Sun Also Rises, or even To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Crazy thing. I feel I have always had my theme FREEDOM – always had my title WITHIN ME – even a theme song “What’s It All About Alfie” Side Note: said to myself when watching Norman Lear with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday when he answered one of her questions with “What’s it all about Alife “OK must be on the right track with something.” Maybe I need to take off the Resistant Cap and come to grips with what I AM instead of always saying what I am not.

    • Drew McArton

      @Gwen – For what it’s worth to you, the name ‘Saoirse’ means ‘Freedom’ in Gaelic. So you’re in good company if nothing else.

      • LarryP

        How is it pronounced?

  • Mary Doyle

    Thanks for this! Once you and Shawn led me to the painful realization that I didn’t know the theme of my WIP, I have also had to conclude that my working title sucks. I finally did get my theme nailed down, so I know that the right title is floating out there and it’s just a matter of time until the Muse allows me to snag it and reel it in. As always, thanks!

  • I was always fond of long titles like “How Late the Sweet Birds Sang” and “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” I like to over complicate them and mix them around and basically make them sound like song lyrics written by Rush.

    It never occurred to me to look at the theme for the title, and if I can’t find the theme then naturally I can’t find the title!

    I have always told people that I suck at titles because I really, really do! I thought you had to be born with title talent and I really liked believing that because then I wouldn’t have to learn how to do it right. Ha ha.

    This is actually the first piece I have ever read to my knowledge about title construction. Cool.

  • Sometimes the theme leads to the title, sometimes the title leads to the theme. Some writers have a title before they start writing, and even if they don’t know it, that’s probably an abbreviated theme compelling them forward. Some writers don’t have a title, not even a working one, until the book is done. And then they “find” the title, which resonates everything in the book, from plot to theme. Then there are the cases where the editor (or someone else in the publishing end) changes the title – or even decides on it to start with. Titles can indicate a series, an epoch (Lord of the Rings), a genre – so many things. Even in children’s books, titles are important. The Wind in the Willow, Winnie the Pooh (When We Were Young), etc. Titles can be a theme in and of themselves.

  • A lot of titles mentioned.

    I suppose the joy of memorizing titles is like the joy of memorizing prose sentences and paragraphs. I shall explain it so, when someone asks me why I bother to have nice little scraps of prose memorized.

    Or else just say, “We writers find words inspiring.”

  • At the risk of veering off-topic, Steve, I just used your March 16 post to clarify the theme for my non-fiction narrative. I was in a state of overwhelm — way more material than I can handle — and I used your post as a template to clarify the theme, it’s levels, the aspects of reclaiming the soul center, and the payoff.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • The French re-titled The Martian: “Alone on Mars.”

    Trainwreck they renamed: “Crazy Amy.”

    I noticed the Crazy Amy thing while in the South Pacific last year while realizing that Hollywood has so much money for advertising that they can pay to place a movie poster in a third world bus stop in the middle of nowhere,,,

    It was, of course, covered in graffiti.

    Those Natives.

    Hey, look, a title!

  • LarryP

    Ursula Leguin had a short story that she titled “The Field of Vision.” The magazine editor who accepted it changed it to “Field of Vision,” probably thinking it sounded cooler or more mysterious or something. But when one reads the story, one realizes that the definite article was essential to the theme of the story.

    So, too, TSOTL, (The Silence of the Lambs) is very different from SOTL or TSOL or SOL. Those last three would be very different books.