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Something I talk about with friends when planning and sharing our projects & media we like is titles - and specifically my disdain for one-word titles. They seem to be more than dominant in multiple entertainment industries. Twilight, Injustice, Negation, Absolver, Bastion, Braid, Dishonored, Destiny, Anthem, Fallout, Inside, Crawl, Us, Psycho, Memento, Inception, Jaws, and a thousand others I can't remember.

Those are all good or notable ones, though, but i meet a lot of students writing stories and games who seem very excited to share that their new jumping game will be called "Jump" and their new climbing game will be called "Climb" and their new coming-of-age-novella will be called "Park".

This is obviously not an objective truth and I wouldn't assert as such, but in my opinion, one word titles are incredibly non-expressive. With the exception of made-up or very unusual words, like SUPERHOT or Westworld.

A one-word title with a vague word that encompasses your stories themes, like "Want" or "Stream" or "Condemned" might be apt, but isn't expressive. The people to whom the front cover of your book matters don't know why "Want" is relevant or interesting, and they're unlikely to feel anything at all out of the ordinary when they see the title. Sure, a title can just be a handle. It doesn't have to be interesting.. but why wouldn't you make it interesting, if you can?

Especially when writing games, choosing a title that doesn't stand out can make all the difference in whether or you game gets noticed or doesn't. Names I love and that people readily click on sound more like: What We Lost In The Flood, o_AbyssalSomewhere, There Will Be Blood, Things Fall Apart, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Please, Don't Touch Anything, Telling Lies, Hypnospace Outlaw, etc.

A good enough title can be interesting enough to express the whole or the essential parts of a work's tone and setting, and encapsulate its themes far more than a single, vague word can.

Having said all that, I appear to be at least partially wrong - high budget projects keep choosing one-word titles over and over again, and I'd be shocked if those decisions were not well-researched. One explanation might be that a project with a great deal of marketing can gain more from the ease of saying one word, or how well the one word fits in headlines, how catchy or punchy that one word might be, without suffering the consequences of choosing a name that doesn't stand out on its own. Or maybe a large project whose goal is having the largest audience possible is better off with a vague title that excludes as few people as possible.

So, what is the reasoning? Are there known studies about the appeal of one-word titles compared to longer ones? Is there a pattern you can see among successful works with and without one-word names?

P.S. I know I have a strong bias towards/interest in games in this post, but I think this trend applies to all kinds of media. I hope you find game writing to be relevant to Writing Stack Exchange and that you find this question interesting. Thanks! ^ ^

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    The average length of a bestseller title is around 3 words, and lengthening in recent years, although Top 100 song titles are on average 2 words and getting shorter (towardsdatascience.com/…). Might be good to show some data to support the premise that one-word titles are, in fact, dominant, and that it's not just a perception effect. – Nuclear Wang Oct 14 at 16:39
  • @NuclearWang that's a good point - i think i'm wrong to be using the word "Dominant". Maybe common is a better one? I don't really see this pattern in song titles though. In games, it may still not be dominant, but it's definitely common, and they I don't have any data, the vast majority of student and indie games I've seen recently possess 1-word titles. I'm going to see if I can put together some numbers about this later. Thank you for pointing this out! – Swanijam Oct 14 at 17:42
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    Probably because it is more mysterious and less spoilerish than "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates." – Taladris Oct 15 at 8:56
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    Japanese light novel authors would like to wholeheartedly disagree with you. Long titles are par for the course in Japanese light novels. Sometimes the titles of their works could be entire chapters on their own... An example of such a long title is "I'm a successful light novel author at a boy's high school, but I'm being strangled by a female classmate who's a voice actress and is younger than me (1) - Time to Play -". – Kapten-N Oct 16 at 6:32
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    Let me introduce you to the great video game, "Summer-Colored High School ★ Adolescent Record – A Summer At School On An Island Where I Contemplate How The First Day After I Transferred, I Ran Into A Childhood Friend And Was Forced To Join The Journalism Club Where While My Days As A Paparazzi Kid With Great Scoops Made Me Rather Popular Among The Girls, But Strangely My Camera Is Full Of Panty Shots, And Where My Candid Romance Is Going." – mid Oct 16 at 18:56

10 Answers 10

23

I am going to agree with Surtsey here. I do not think single word titles are the prevalent. I still think I can answer the question of what are the benefits of using a single word title. I am also going to focus on "Climb" and not "Superhot", as I think the second is just 2 words.

Titles of things are there for the first time impact. You want to hear the title, get an emotional response from it, and remember it. Or at least they want you to do that.

We have emotional associations to words. Let's just pick some, "hate", "punch", "murder" Each one of those words has you feeling in a way. Those are your feelings, because you have seen those words, and have experienced them in so many contexts that there is nothing specific left about them. They are just a simple emotion and meaning distilled down as much as possible.

Now let's compare that to sentence fragments. "The hate You Bring", "Sucker Punch", "Anatomy of a Murder". Feel how the emotion has been lost. Your mind now spends more time parsing meaning out of the words, instead of feeling them. If there is a feeling it comes externally, as the writer is telling you how to feel, instead of drawing out your own emotion from the word itself.

Now neither of these approaches of naming things is wrong, but you can clearly see the difference. These are tools in your naming belt to pass the ides that you want to the reader or viewer.

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    I find the title of The hate u give quite emotional. – gerrit Oct 15 at 20:08
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    @gerrit But that title is a bit more of an outlier rather than the rule. There's no readily available word for "The hate you give another" that can convey the same meaning. If I were to just put "Malice", you think of something being malicious, not "me being the subject of your hatred". Same goes for "loathed", and even then it would probably need to be "the loathed" to portray a similar feeling, even if it's not the same. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Oct 16 at 21:21
  • I disagree with the assertion that compound words are actually two words. Unless you want to say things like "stars fish" and "supers hots". In my eyes it still maintains the same impact as regular nouns. Adding to that; If you were to use the same logic, you'd also have to discount words like DIShonored and INception because of their prefixes. – shadowmanwkp Oct 17 at 6:42
  • @shadowmanwkp the difference for me Dishonored is a dictionary word. Superhot is not. If we take it as 1 word, it becomes a made up word, maybe like Nier, that does not mean anything (at least to a normal English speaker unfamiliar with the franchise). I think that's its own category. – Andrey Oct 17 at 13:56
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As with others, I think your assertion is incorrect. Based on an analysis of the 342 film title given in this list of film releases in 2019, I find that 26% of films have 1 word titles, 32% have 2 word titles, 19% have 3 word titles, 13% have 4 word titles, and the remaining 10% have 5 or more. The longest was 9 words.

This shows a strong preference for short titles, which are presumably more memorable, but not a dominance of one word titles. Instead, two word titles are the most common. 20% of the film titles began with the word 'The', and of these 28 (8% of the total) were of the form 'The X'.

I can see no discernable pattern to the 89 one word titles, there's no obvious predominance of names, places, verbs, objects, times, emotions, etc. but rather a mixed bag of pretty much every type of one word title you could think of.

  • 2
    If it helps your tally - there are 28 titles in the list in the form "The X" where X is a single word. – Baldrickk Oct 16 at 9:55
  • Thanks, @Baldrickk – Jack Aidley Oct 16 at 10:04
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The reason, as you guessed, is marketing. One word that sums up something memorable about a movie is a mental handle, it can appear in far larger type on a billboard, it eats up only 1 second in a 15 second commercial, it is very easy for people to recognize and associate a single word; psychologically that happens faster.

If I say "Avatar" you know exactly what I'm talking about. Same with "Rocky". Even for a bomb, "WaterWorld" remains a memorable title. Short is better, even if it isn't ONE word: "Mad Max". "The Terminator". It works on TV too; "Sherlock", "Monk", "CSI", "NCIS".

Its about time (to say it) and space (to print it), and being a single word it is hard to get wrong when Googling it.

I understand the urge to make the title descriptive, but it can also just be a unique, recognizable label with connections to the story in someway, to make marketing more effective.

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    Funny how Avatar and Rocky made me first not think of the movie that you meant kind of weakening your argument – Andrey Oct 14 at 18:36
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    No in both cases my first go to is The Last Airbender, and Horror Picture Show. Both of the fandom use that single word to identify the movie/show and your prompts don't help. – Andrey Oct 14 at 19:00
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    I'm with @Andrey. "Avatar" makes me think ATLA before the blue-skinned Pocahontas movie. So I don't think "it makes no sense" is really correct. Perhaps is a generational thing or a local culture thing. – linksassin Oct 15 at 5:43
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    @linksassin quick, what do you think of when someone says "the avatar movie"? - blue skin or the M. Night Shagalaamadingdong movie? – Baldrickk Oct 15 at 9:51
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    @Baldrickk I don't know what you mean. M Night Shyamalan never made a Last Airbender movie. There is no war in Ba Sing Se. – F1Krazy Oct 15 at 11:30
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I think your assertion is incorrect. My collection of movies surpasses 400. More titles begin with the word 'the' than are a single world in their entirety. Single word titles promote the noun (part of our celebrity obsession): Superman, Batman, Alien. This encourages franchise and series. Single titles tend to be about noun - verb - noun, how one thing affected another: "The Hand that Rocked the Cradle", "The Day the Earth Stood Still".

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    What about two word titles beginning with "The"? One could argue that "The" is pretty meaningless (google does if you search for it) and a title like "The Shining" would therefore only have one (key) word in the title. How does that affect the count? – Baldrickk Oct 15 at 9:49
  • @Baldrickk To add to your point, many cataloging systems de-emphasize it: "Shining, The" – Nate Barbettini Oct 15 at 17:48
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    @Baldrickk: It may not affect the semantics much, but it certainly has an impact. Take one of the titles mentions in the question: "Climb". Now add the article in front: "The Climb". Notice the difference? – celtschk Oct 16 at 8:05
  • @NateBarbettini: The cataloguing system is about easily finding things. Having all titles beginning with "The" lumped together under "T" would not be helpful in that respect. I'm sure if half the titles started with "The Big", then also the second word would be included in that treatment; that is, in that hypothetical world, "The Big Lebowski" would be listed under "Lebowski, The Big". – celtschk Oct 16 at 8:11
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    @Jungkook: Really not? Let's see. Without article: “Mountain”. With article: “The Mountain.” I still think it makes a difference. And don't forget that we are specifically talking about titles, so think of a book titled that way! – celtschk Oct 16 at 15:04
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The following is a VERY naive piece of research.

I've downloaded the IMDB titles dataset (available here: https://datasets.imdbws.com/title.basics.tsv.gz), and took the 3rd column - primaryTitle. I then created a histogram of the number of titles containing each count of words.

One very probable problem is I'm not taking language into consideration; another is that 'a word' is anything between spaces (so anglo-american counts as one word, as does the french word L'équilibriste; in both cases I'd be happier counting them as two words, but my time was very short)

The histogram seems to indicate the dominance you mention isn't necessarily there. In contrast, there seem to be a surprising number of titles with 5 words in them.

Number of Titles with N Words

Focusing on Movies only (titleType==movie) changes the results significantly (removing the '5 words' effect; significantly lowering the 2 words. Apparently a lot of TV episodes are titled 'Episode Aired DD MMM YYYY' making them 5 words in total). Still - I'm not sure I see dominance of single-word titles.

Number of Movie Titles with N Words

  • 2
    Could improve on this by discounting the word "The" as the first word (or "Le", "La", "El", "Il", etc. depending on language), and also discounting the last word being a number, since those tend to just be sequels of movies with one fewer word in the title. I suspect this would fill up the 1 column a bit more, though you'd obviously also have some drop from 3 to 2, etc. as well. Would still miss some, but short of a manual search of all 4-5 million titles, it's probably the best you could do... – Darrel Hoffman Oct 16 at 20:05
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    @DarrelHoffman: A title of the form "The X" is still a two word title. I think it's worth counting them, but they should still count as two word. Also, as Ran points out regarding the space issue, there are substantial difficulties with this given a multi-lingual dataset since you also need to discount "der", "die", "das" and every other form of "the" in every language in the dataset. – Jack Aidley Oct 17 at 12:07
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    Excellent, that's good work. What is the distribution for everything BUT movies? Chances are that original multi-modal distribution is the sum of two different distributions. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 19 at 16:21
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Because sometimes expressive isn't what the intent is. Sometimes a creator wants something succinct and punchy, while actually still giving enough away about the setting or premise to be intriguing. Longer titles contrary to your belief are popular, but are not necessarily any more clear, even if they are more expressive.

You also have to remember that the name of a work doesn't exist in a bubble. It will exist alongside cover art, box art, posters, trailers etc. and it's the name coupled with the imagery that will give you the impact and make it memorable. You're associating a word with the iconography of the media you are trying to sell, and that is very powerful. Even decades after their release, some people will hear the words "jaws" or "psycho" in regular conversation and their minds may still make links to those films.

A couple of the examples you mention can be used to demonstrate this. The name Fallout, alongside the imagery used on the boxart immediately tells you that this is some future post-nuclear armageddon kind of setting. The name Memento, as well as the posters featuring polaroid prints, actually indicate a lot about the premise of the film.

It's not a catch-all way of doing things, though, and I think it varies case by case on whether it's a good idea. There is no one good way of titling all works, though there will certainly be trendy formulas.

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Inspired by @Ran Locar's answer, I had a look at all films that came out by year and the (naive) word count of each title. The dataset I used was this Kaggle set, so if the original question specifically thinks this trend changed in the past two years then this won't help.

However, it looks to me like there is at best a slow trend upwards for shorter titles.

enter image description here

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    Great visualisation. – Jack Aidley Oct 17 at 12:07
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    Great work! Beautifully shows the 'convergence' in the size of titles. Also, it can explain the 'feeling' of 1-word titles dominance, judging by how much it has grown. Interestingly, if you look at early titles (Lumiere movies, for example), you NEED a long title to explain what you're seeing. For the newer works, the title hints at the movie content but usually enough to pull you in without telling you too much. – Ran Locar Oct 21 at 11:57
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I think it's about aspiration, about claim-staking, and about self-importance — and, in some cases, ultimately about denying the competition.

The number of one-word titles is far smaller than the number of multiple-word titles; and for a given subject, there are only a few relevant single-word titles.  So there's a certain cachet about using one of them.  (If nothing else, it denies them to anyone else.)

Also, using an opaque name is tacitly assuming that people will learn what it means, that the work is worthy and important enough for people to become aware of it without the benefit of a descriptive title.  (It may not be, of course; but the confidence and even chutzpah of choosing such a title may help its popularity nonetheless.)

You can see this in, for example, titles of Microsoft software.  While competitors were coming up with original, distinctive, and memorable names such as ‘WordStar’, ‘WordPerfect’, ‘WordWise’, ‘1st Word Plus’, ‘EasyWriter’, ‘LocoScript’, and ‘MultiMate’, Microsoft went with the blandest, commonest, most abstract name they could: ‘Word’ — implicitly claiming that because it was from Microsoft, that alone would be enough to ensure its popularity without needing a memorable name too.  (An arrogance which seems to have been justified…)

It not only denied that exact name to competitors, but probably many related ones too.  It meant that anyone merely mentioning the subject of word processors was also inadvertently using their product name — perhaps a form of subliminal advertising.  And another effect was to force people to use the company name to disambiguate — ‘Microsoft Word’, thus publicising that too.

So there would seem to be many benefits to using a short, generic name, some of which are more about denying the competition than about helping the intended audience.

  • I think this is it - like other minimalist approaches, it's a (somewhat risky) attempt to claim limited conceptual real estate. When I think of what I expect a game called "Jump" to be, it's either barely playable, 200-in-1 bargain-bin shovelware, or an indie platformer with with artful visuals and polished animations and gameplay (say, Canabalt). By making a game called "Jump" that's clearly not the former, I'm trying to cement my game's status as the latter. – Milo P Oct 16 at 17:28
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Your assertion, as others have pointed out, is incorrect. That's okay, though. I thought it might be more helpful to you to address your "disdain for one-word titles." I would say this is an unfortunate disdain you've developed, though it is borne by an astute and fortunate observation you've had.

There is nothing wrong with one-word titles. On the contrary, one-word titles can be brilliant. Of the examples you listed, I would say at least the following four are highly effective titles:

  • Jaws
  • Psycho
  • Memento
  • Inception

In the cases of Jaws and Psycho, I might argue that it would have been a mistake to name them anything else.

The good news is, I think the disdain you have comes from your instinct that a title that does not capture anything is almost always bad (at least on its own). I've come across this idea when reading about screenwriting and other forms of writing. If you put yourself in the shoes of someone at a film studio, or publishing house, whose job it is to filter the manuscripts they receive, then a boring, hackneyed or otherwise forgettable title will probably signal that you can throw that one safely in the garbage, saving your time to review works that at least have decent titles. "Dishonored" or "Destiny" stick out to me, from your examples, as ones I wouldn't bother reading, simply because they're far too vague.

That being said, once a work is at a stage where it will definitely be published, and will be accompanied by a marketing campaign, it might be safe to revert the title to something shorter and less communicative. While "Halo" might have been safely thrown in the trash back before that video game was created, we now know that, coupled with the right imagery, it can be a solid franchise name.

So, I would advise you not to write off (pun intended?) a one-word title simply because it is one word. Assess it for its effectiveness, like you should for any title. Choosing an effective title that brings impact is a skill, and that may be even more true when it comes to one-word titles. It is as much of a mistake to use an ineffective multi-word title where an excellent one-word title exists as it is to do the inverse. Would anyone, in 1975, have gone to see a movie called "How Three Men Stopped a Most Dreadful Shark?"

  • I think it might be worth noting that books have a very different product cycle than, say, video games where multi-year publishing deals have often been struck up while the devs are barely past the pre-production stage of a project (and sometimes before that), let alone having a title set in stone. Even established authors would struggle to get a publisher on board with a book they've barely started. – DoctorPenguin Oct 18 at 8:16
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They are inviting comparisons with later works. "Twilight-type vampires" or "Post-Memento sf" are more likely to become a thing than with longer titles.

  • I think for that it's more relevant that it is a single phrase. “Groundhog day-style” works just fine, as does “post-Jurassic Park”. Even longer ones like “Deep Space Nine-inspired” are unproblematic. However with full sentences as titles, it doesn't work as well; “The Day The Earth Stood Still-type” sounds awkward. – celtschk Oct 16 at 15:22

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