Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On naming plays


Writing plays is hard. Writing the outline is hard. Writing the first draft is hard. Writing the final draft and every draft between those two drafts is hard.

But the hardest words any writer has to write are the two (or three or four or five) words at the top of the script, i.e. the title.

After all, the title has a big job to do. It should be memorable. It should tell you what the play is about. And it should suggest what genre the play belongs to. (For comedies, I also like my titles to pass the smile test. If the title is funny enough to make you smile, it's a keeper.)

If the title does all that, and you find that it's never been used before, then you've hit the play-naming quadfecta.

I was thinking about this today because I've been wracking my brain for a title for the cat heiress comedy I'll be developing at Palmer Ridge High School. But then I usually torture myself over my titles.

Million Dollar Meatballs is one of my favorite titles. But I didn't come up with it until I was halfway through the first draft. Before that, I had gone through half a dozen titles, each one more forgettable than the last.

The problem was that the original version had the diamonds being hidden in a bottle of ketchup. And I didn't like any of the ketchup titles I came up with. So I put the script away for a year--yes, an entire year--until I could figure out how to get the diamonds from the ketchup bottle to a plate of meatballs just so I could call it Million Dollar Meatballs.

I'm glad I did. That play is now one of my most successful, and I think the title helps.

How I Met Your Mummy was originally titled Now Museum, Now You Don't. I liked the pun there (surprisingly, it had never been used as the title of a play), but it doesn't really tell you what the play's about. The museum isn't the important part of the story. The mummy is.

So I played around with "mummy" titles. Unfortunately, all the good ones were already taken: I Want My Mummy, Mummy Dearest. Then my friend Jeff Schmoyer suggested a pun on the title of the sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.

I loved it, but I had to check whether it had ever been used before. Luckily, it hadn't, although it had been used for an episode of an obscure animated series. I didn't think that would lead to much confusion, so I went with it. And it's worked out great ever since.

Could I come up with an equally good title for my cat heiress comedy? Well, not the way things have been going for me lately. I hate the title Where There's a Will, There's a Way. Again, it doesn't really tell you what the play is about and it definitely doesn't pass the smile test. And all the other titles I came up with were extremely lame.

Then today I stopped by Palmer Ridge. I wanted to see the stage where the play will be performed and to meet some of the students in the school's theatre program. It's always better to write a character with a specific actor in mind, even if the actor doesn't end up playing that part.

I took away a lot of ideas for characters. But the biggest takeaway came from an offhand comment by director Josh Belk. He said he'd been wracking his brain for titles and the only thing he could come up with was The Purrfect Murder. Then he immediately dismissed it, saying it was too cliched.

Wait a minute, I said. That's actually a great title. But there's no murder in the play, just a kidnapping. Why not change it to The Purrfect Crime?

I immediately Googled it. Sure, it popped up as an episode of an old detective show, but I couldn't find a single play with that title.

So it's official. The title of my next play will be The Purrfect Crime.

The lesson here? If you're ever stuck on the title for a play or novel or whatever, check the episode list of old TV shows.

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