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Writing - The Photoplay Title

( Originally Published 1922 )



Increasing Importance of the Title.—There has been a style in tides somewhat as in dress. At one time it was customary to use a certain fixed order of words. Later the fad was to use the leading character's name as a title. Then titles of color were used. But all the while, little real attention was paid to the importance of the title. Most writers were content to affix to their manuscript a general expression vaguely related to the plot, and to let it go at that.

Of late, however, writers have begun to give the title its proper share of attention. They have come to realize that there are three important elements in successful photoplay writing; and, if a writer masters these, he is quite apt to be successful. These three elements in order of importance are: plot, synopsis, and title. If you can evolve an original plot, comprehensively outline it in a well-written synopsis, and pre-cede the whole with a satisfactory title, success is yours. As indicated above, plot is by far the most important element in photoplay writing. The ability to write a good synopsis is next in importance. The aptitude of selecting a good title is third. These three things form the successful triumvirate of successful photoplay writing.

Why the Title Is Important.—There are two things that enable producers and exhibitors to advertise their photo-plays successfully to the public. First, the "star" featured in the picture ; and, second, the title of the play.

As time goes on, the star becomes less important. People are beginning to awaken to a realization of the fact that a highly celebrated actor featured in a play does not necessarily mean an entertaining production. In a great many instances, film companies have gone to enormous expense to employ grand opera stars or stage favorites to appear in pictures, because of the advertising value of their names. Frequently, these plays have been utter failures. For example, William Collier, a successful actor on the legitimate stage, was employed by Mack Sennett to appear in a few comedies. Mr. Collier's name had great advertising value; but, when his pictures were produced, they were generally said to be failures. Mr. Collier is funny of word and manner; therefore, he failed in the photoplay. DeWolf Hopper was featured at considerable expense in "Don Quixote?' Mr. Hopper is a successful stage comedian. His picture 'Don Quixote" was not highly satisfactory. His style of humor was not adapted to the photoplay. Mary Garden, a talented and successful grand opera star, was pronounced by most critics a failure in "Thais." All this goes to demonstrate that, in the future, producers are likely to pay less attention to the star and more attention to the play. The story itself will come into its own; therefore, the story's title will be the main means of advertising the play and will assume more importance than it does to-day. Even at present the title of a photoplay often has more "box-office" value than anything else. Knowing, then, that the title is of such tremendous importance, the new writer ought to know exactly what it should do.

The First Duties of a Title.—The main purpose of the title is to advertise your play to the public. It may or it may not give a correct idea of what your play is about. This is not absolutely necessary. But it must arrest the attention of the playgoer and make him want to see your photoplay.

Before a title can appeal to the public, however, the play must be accepted for production by some film company. But, before your play can be accepted, it must appeal to some editor. It is essential, therefore, that the title attract the editor.

You may think the editorial appeal is of secondary importance—that the plot of your story is supreme. True, it is; but you may be surprised to know the great attraction there often is in a good title. In looking through manuscripts, the editor often becomes very interested in a manuscript, without knowing anything about the plot, simply because the title appeals to him. Even before he reads a word of your synopsis, he is interested in your work—he is deeply interested in it because you have piqued his curiosity. Perhaps you appealed to his personal interest. Maybe your title created in his mind an image of many dollars to be made through successfully advertising your play. Perhaps he immediately sensed the drawing power of your title. But, no matter what interests him, it is a fact that he must be interested; therefore, your first duty is to select a title that will appeal to the editor.

Why Your Title Must Appeal to the Public.—Appealing to the public is a different matter. Guy De Maupassant aptly said : "The public is composed of numerous groups crying out; console me, amuse me, satisfy me, touch me, make me dream, laugh, shudder, weep, think." And your title should do at least one of these things. It is not possible, perhaps, to incorporate all of these elements in one title; but, in some way, you must select a group of words that will "get to" the man on the street, the average fellow, the type that is in the great majority. Do not make the mistake of trying to select a high-sounding or pretty title. If you do, it will go over the head of the average person—and the vast majority of playgoers are "average" people.

If you will select a title that piques curiosity, you will find that your work will be given an instantaneous chance to prove itself worth while. If you stop to think, you know this is true. How often have you seen people stop in front of a motion picture theater and look at the posters and pictures advertising the production inside?

You, yourself, perhaps often have decided to go to a certain theater, and, when you arrived outside and saw what was on the bill, turned away, unsatisfied, not interested, perhaps even repelled by the title of the play. I once heard a bright man say he didn't care to see Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," because there was something about the title that somehow made him feel that the production itself was a long-drawn-out, dry, uninteresting affair, even though he had often heard it said that the play was well worth seeing. And it surely was! This is not a criticism of Mr. Griffith's title, but merely an example to show how titles affect people.

Compare the lack of interest in such titles as "The Village Convict," a story by C. H. White, or "Forever," a Paramount Picture, with such suggestive and appealing titles as, "Bought and Paid For," "Fools Paradise," a Cecil B. DeMille Production, or "Dream Street," by D. W. Griffith. The last three titles are not quoted as perfect examples, but merely as being, far more interesting to the average person than most of those we see. Knowing what the title should do, we ought to find out just what constitutes a good title.

What Constitutes a Perfect Title.—A perfect title should be: (1) apt, or appropriate; (2) interesting, or attractive; (3) specific; (4) short; (5) new; (6) literary; (7) sonorous; (8) suggestive. Often it is not possible to incorporate all of these qualities in one title, but you should if you can.

1. Make Your Title Apt.—An apt, appropriate, or fitting, title is one applying particularly to your manuscript. In many cases, the fitting title will not suggest itself until your story is written. Examples of fitting titles are: "The Affairs of Anatol," "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford," and "The Miracle Man."

2. Make Your Title Interesting.—In your zeal to select a fitting title, do not overlook the fact that it must also be interesting and attractive. It is not necessary to say more here about making titles attractive. This has been covered under the section dealing with appeal to the editor.

3. Make Your Title Specific.—Many beginners, however, fail to make their titles specific. The new writer (not to mention the experienced writer who ought to know better) is apt to handicap his work with such general titles as, "Two Friends," by Kipling; or "A Love Story," by Webster. Avoid this. Narrow your title down to some specific phase of your plot. If possible, make it a title applying only to your particular manuscript, as O'Brien did when he thought of "The Diamond Lens." Also consider the following: "Sentimental Tommy," "The Copperhead," and "Her Husband's Trade Mark."

4. Make Your Title Short.—Try to make your title from three to five words in length. It is apt to be clumsy and awkward if it is longer. Do not, however, go to the extreme and make your title so short that it is vague and meaningless. Edward Belamy did this when he named one of his productions "Lost."

5. Select a Fresh Title.—By a new title is meant one that is fresh and unhackneyed. The commonplace title often spoils a play. Who would want to see a play with a title like "All's Well That Ends Well," when just around the corner they were exhibiting a play with such a fresh title as "On with the Dance?"

6. A Literary Title Is Desirable.—It is not absolutely essential that the photoplaywright select a literary title—one the words of which are arranged in exact rhetorical order and bring out shades of beauty and meaning. I say it is not essential, because the average playgoer might not be any more impressed with a rhetorical title than with any other; in fact, a large proportion of the people who view photoplays might be more impressed with an illiterate title. However, if it is possible for you to choose between two otherwise equally good titles, one lacking in literary qualities and the other possessing them, by all means choose the latter. There are two titles often given as examples of literary quality and the lack of it: "A Purple Rhododendron," by John Fox, Jr., is literary "A Ride With a Mad Horse in a Freight Car," by W. H. H. Murray, is quite the opposite.

7. Make Your Title Sonorous.—A sonorous title sounds well; its words and syllables follow each other in a smooth, pleasant, attractive manner. Compare the euphonious qualities of "Ligeia," by Poe, with "The Betrothal of Elypholate Yingst," by Helen Martin, or "The Glenmutchkin Railway," by Aytoun. In making your title smooth and pleasant in sound, do not go to the extreme and so weaken it that it fails to draw attention to your work.

8. Select a Suggestive Title.—A suggestive title brings up pictures in the reader's mind. For instance, "The Upper Berth" starts the mind thinking of certain interesting possibilities is suggestive-and makes you want to read the story. "The Severed Hand" is suggestive of mystery; therefore, it is interesting. "Marjorie Daw" suggests the character story; "The Deserted House" suggests the story of setting. "The Cannibals, and Mr. Buffum" suggests humor, while "The Courting of Dinah Shadd" suggests love, humor, and, perhaps, character. It will be well to call the beginner's attention to the fact that it is important, if practicable, to have a title suggest love, for love appeals to nearly everyone. Examples of other suggestive titles: "Enchantment," "Don't Change Your Husband," "The Woman Thou Gayest Me," "The Valley of the Giants," "Are You a Mason," and "The Inside of the Cup."

Of course, it is a difficult matter to say exactly why a title pleases or displeases, why it interests or fails to interest, be-cause different people have different tastes; but it is quite likely that its effectiveness depends in a great measure on this quality of suggestion. It is not even an exaggeration to say that many titles are poor because they lack suggestive qualities. Consequently, it should be the photoplaywright's constant aim to select a title that will "make pictures in the other fellow's mind."

How to Choose the Title.-There is a simple, easy way to select a title for your manuscript. First analyze your plot; find out what phase of your plot distinguishes your play from other photoplays written around the same, or similar, basic idea. The average play is built up of common incidents which have been used again and again by other writers. But, in an original manuscript, these incidents are carefully arranged and put together in such a manner that, somewhere in the script, probably near the climax, the play takes a turn, or twist, which makes the work different from other plays made up of the same elements. Right here is where you should select the title. Make it tell something about that special phase of your plot, that new "twist" you put into your work, and you will find that, in most cases, it will be apt and specific. If your plot is interesting, your title will be attractive. Then it is up to you to refine it in such a manner that it will be sonorous, suggestive, and literary. But, above all, make your title first interesting, next suggestive, then new, appropriate, and sonorous, and, finally, literary.

When to Choose the Title.—The title is first in position on any manuscript. This does not mean, however, that you must have a title before you write a play. The fact of the matter it, 'tis wise and often necessary to select the title last. This is due to the fact that a writer may understand his theme and know what his characters are going to do, even have his script worked out in his own mind to the minutest detail before he begins to write, yet he may not have the faintest idea what the title is going to be. So that, in most cases, it is necessary to wait and select the title after the play is finished.

Titles selected before the script is written are generally vague and uninteresting. If selected last, they are more apt to be specific and appropriate.

Taking a Clever Title and Building a Play Around It. —In some cases, however, a title first suggests itself, then, in turn, suggests a story to be built around the title. That is, having thought of a good expression for a title, a certain train of thought is started in an author's mind. Thus he is able to construct a play around the title.

D. W. Griffith's famous play "Intolerance" is a good example. Mr. Griffith undoubtedly had the title of this play in mind before the script was constructed. He had been turning over in', his mind for a long time the fact that an intolerant condition of mind, or action, on the part of any individual, or association of individuals, is harmful to the general well-being of society. He knew that intolerance had been in many in-stances the curse of a nation. Acting on this knowledge, he constructed a master play around the title; a play dealing with four distinct epochs of history, each epoch closely related in motive to the other, and the whole cleverly portraying the evil influence of intolerance.

The titles of plays constructed in this manner usually are too vague and unspecific. As a rule, they sum up the play's theme in a few words. As far as the title is concerned, therefore, this is not the best way to work. The new writer perhaps will write better plays and think of better titles if he writes his plays first and selects his titles last.

What Titles to Avoid.-Do not handicap your manuscript with a hackneyed, commonplace title like, "A Little Child Shall Lead Them." No one would want to see a play with such a title if he could see "Forbidden Fruit."

Don't choose a general title like, "A Love Story," when there are plenty you can find that will apply particularly to the manuscript, as does "A Passion in the Desert."

Don't condemn your play to defeat by labeling it with an uninteresting title, such as, "The Village Convict," when there are so many that will make a person deeply anxious to see your play. Consider "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad, "Old Wives For New," "The Red Peacock," or "Excuse My Dust."

Don't make your play objectionable by using a sensational title like, "In Love With the Czarina," when there are many temperate phrases to serve your purpose.

Don't reveal your plot in your title, as Poe did in "The Premature Burial," unless you intentionally do so as he did. In this case, he wanted his readers, even before they read his story, to know that there would be a premature burial. He intended to arouse their interest in this manner and surprise them at the end. To do this is such an unusual procedure, however, and requires such delicate treatment, that the be-ginner had better avoid it.

Don't handicap your manuscript with a depressing, sorrowful, gloomy title, such as, "The Convict's Return." There are so many pleasant things to advertise to the public.

Shun the or and and style of title used in dime novels. "The Test, or Doing His Bit."

Avoid alliterative titles, such as, "The Pit and the Pendulum." Many critics consider this title good; others think it is not. At any rate, Poe was treading on dangerous ground when he selected it.

Avoid the newspaper title, "Saved by a Bootblack"; or extremely fantastical titles like, "A Day on Mars"; or anecdotal, "A Trip to New York"; or repulsive, as, "A Murder in the Rue Morgue."

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