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ANATOMY OF A TITLE—WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS (Or how to come up with a great title for your play)

July 29th, 2015 donnahoke



I am in title hell. This rarely happens–usually, I happen on a title early on and it sticks and I like it and it works great for the play. Not this time. What are your best tips for finding the right title?


This is what I posted on the Official Playwrights of Facebook on June 29 after trying fruitlessly to come up with a title that would somehow encompass all the themes in my play about open secrets, coming clean, and moving on. The working title had been RAW EGGS DON’T ALWAYS KILL YOU (yeah, I know), then just RAW EGGS, then MAYBE BETTER. All bad, bad, bad, thus the post.


Here’s the how the day went on, and how I finally came up with my final title.


Hillary DePiano: I usually just read tangential Wikipedia articles to my theme until something jumps out at me.


Great idea. I Googled “open secret” and found out that the expression originated as the title of a Spanish play by Calderón, El Secreto a Voces (“The Noisy Secret”),  which was translated by Carlo Gozzi into Italian as Il pubblico secreto (1769).


I loved that notion, “the noisy secret.” Because it described so perfectly what was happening in the play. It’s not about a gay son coming out to his mother; it’s about the freedom that ultimately acknowledging secrets brings. And the son’s sexuality is not the only open secret in the play, so I could cover both with one title. But THE NOISY SECRET or THE OPEN SECRET felt too dead on, so I started playing around with other words for secret.


In the meantime, other great suggestions were pouring in:


Hal Corley: Brainstorm one words (“Proof,” “Doubt,” “Wit,” “Disgraced”); type in a character name in Google, see what comes up (pop music, etc.); take your theme and go to Goodreads for a quotation (“redemption,” “betrayal,” “acceptance”) from which you might extract something.


I tried this, but it didn’t yield anything, but I really wanted it to because the Goodreads quote suggestion was a great one.


Garret Groenveld: I have a few: one thing that has helped me was the title technique of some painters in the ’70s. Take one small element in the play and use it as a focus, as evidenced by Bischoff’s “Yellow Lampshade.”


This was my RAW EGGS title originally, but it just didn’t seem right.


Maire Martello: Bible, Shakespeare are good sources for titles. Barlett’s quotations.


Kelly Mcburnette-Andronicos: Have you ever used the Wordle generator? I’m not sure it’ll help generate ideas for a title, but it’s fun to see what words get heavy emphasis in your play.


Linda Evans: Use a really really BAD title for about a week and your brain will respond by coughing up a GOOD title.


I’d been though TWO bad titles, and that hadn’t happened yet.


Heather Lee: I like to listen to music and see what jumps out at me from the lyrics.


Charlie Primerano: Try to think of a few songs that match the mood/theme of the play. There will be some commonality. How would you describe it? That is your title. If you get stuck thinking of songs, play some of your favorite music or Google a list of all-time great songs. Titles are not copyrighted and you can use them but try to come up with your own if you can. You will like it better.


I found a Rush song called “Open Secrets,” but it didn’t seem to have anything useful. And I unfortunately am not much of a music person. I can see this working great for very aural people.


Don Webb: I use the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Never fails.


Bill Doncaster: Don’t overthink titles. Whatever is fine. And you can ask for suggestions later (the right title’s probably already in there — time or some perspective and you’ll see it). And… honestly, they don’t matter a helluva lot.


I disagree. I just had someone from a big contest tell me that they read BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART on the New Play Exchange because the title was intriguing. And that’s my most hard-won title. Maybe I should always work as hard on titles as I did on that one.


John Byrd: Come up with 3 titles and ask people which show they’d prefer to go see.


Would you see a play called THE NOISY HUSH-HUSH? I came up with that in trying to find another word for secret. My boyfriend loved it, but it felt wrong, too cute, not encompassing enough.



EM Lewis: Read some poetry. Poets do a lot with a few potent words — just like we want to with our titles, and sometimes slide in sideways… It often helps me think different. Plus poetry is awesome!


David Hansen: Ask someone else for the title.


Duncan Pflaster: Just pick a random phrase from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”




Fred Tacon: Can you give an elevator description of the play? The title would make (has made) me curious about it.


Hmmm… It’s about open secrets… if there were one word like ISLAMABAD or something that would make people instantly think “open secret,” that would be perfect.


Chuck Lipsig: Anything wrong with “Open Secrets” as a title?


Fred Tacon: Behind Open Doors


Over and over, the idea of contradiction was coming up, but I didn’t really want to use the word “secret” in the title. I felt it was too limiting, because while the secrets are the catalyst for the outcome of the play—both mother and son using truths to spur their own revelations—they aren’t what the play is about. But I wasn’t thinking globally enough yet. I started to think of metaphors for secrets, a cat in a bag? THE NOISY CAT? LOUD AND HUSHED?



Alyson Mead: Common Knowledge?


Roz DeKett: A pivotal phrase or word from the dialogue — not an original concept, but often a useful one.


Kate Morris: Consider striking the ‘The’?


Garret Groenveld: Also – removing the “The” is commercially important in New York as I think it’s the Times or the New Yorker (or both) which lists plays with The under T – which isn’t great if you are looking to have a play called The Aardvark, and everyone is looking under A.


NOISY HUSH-HUSH. I like removing “The” is because it takes it from something specific to a concept, which, in this case, is important. I still wished cat were an easily decipherable metaphor for secret, because like MEOW, MEOW I’M SUFFOCATING or THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC CAT could be fun.



Suzanne W. Stout: Inside-Out.


Used several times for well-known works. But still… more contradiction.


Chuck Lipsig: Hugger-Mugger?




Michael Walker: I often focus on the causal action (betrayal, death, birth, hurricane); the reversal (climax?) generating the resolution (a revelation, a fight, an acceptance); and/or the outcome (a cure, death, marriage, a new life).


Fred Tacon: Is there something about what the secret is that could play into the title, or do you want to keep that a …well, you know…


Paul Lewis: ‘open secret’ is a kind of paradox, or oxymoron. If it were me, I’d be trying to think of some very concrete representation of that paradox that would telegraph that concept, at least on a subconscious level.


I loved this idea, but I couldn’t come up with anything that everybody knows is an open secret that would instantly convey the idea. JOEL GRAY IS GAY? The best I could come up with was LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE ARE IN LOVE, which I thought was kind of cute, but my boyfriend hated it, and kept pushing for NOISY HUSH-HUSH, which I was over by now.


David W. Christner: Look for something that comes out of your dialogue.


I’d gone over the play several times looking, and RAW EGGS and MAYBE BETTER both came from that, but didn’t feel totally right. And I started to fear that I was getting on everybody’s nerves, but this is the most generous group of playwrights on the planet, and they persevered.


Ann Thomas Seitz: Choose one word from each page of the play. Eliminate half. Then eliminate half of those, then half of those until you have two remaining. Then eliminate one. There you go.


I’m going to try this some time.


Patti Cassidy: last line of the play?


“When are you getting married?” It’s a punchline, so probably wouldn’t make much sense.


Jennifer O’Grady: No advice but I empathize. I have no problem titling my poems and short plays but find it nearly impossible to title my full-length plays.


And this is the crux of this great group. They always empathize. And help. Xoxo


Roberta D’Alois: I wait it out and then dream about it.


Vivian Lermond: Sometimes I find a line of dialogue that helps me to title a play. Other times, I consider the theme and use that as a tool to capture the essence of the title.


Linda Bidwell Delaney: Deafening Whispers. SSHH!


See, it kept coming back to that idea of contrast, contradiction, the idea that is contained in the phrase “open secret.” I came up with SHUT UP AND SHOUT, which I felt was sort of there. And it was alliterative, which is always a plus. And it also kind of conveyed that the secret was shouting, or the person was shouting something else… hmmm…. Closer.


Jerry Rabushka: Use your favorite Tori Amos song, and it’s bound to be perfect!


Patti Cassidy: Which famous writer was it that said to a young novelist, “Does your book have any drums or trumpets in it?” “No,” said the newbie. “It’s not that kind of book at all.” “Then call it no drums, no trumpets.” Perhaps you would call your piece “No Polar Bears on Mondays…”


You can always count on playwrights to get silly. With brains. Brainy silliness. These are smart people.


Earl Roske: What I did, the rare time I got stuck was to just brainstorm and try to fill a page of ideas, no matter how awkward. As I got going I found certain words repeating and variations of phrasing. I took the best five and sent it to someone else and they narrowed it to two and I made the final choice.


I used this idea for BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART, and I did go through this exercise with this play but got nowhere. (I could post these cat in the bag pictures all day!)



Elaine Romero: Secret Noise


Bridgette Dutta Portman: If all else fails, go classical—just name it after your protagonist.


ELLEN.  Seems too serious for a comedy. And it would make everyone think of, you know, Ellen.


Hartley Wright: What is the “thing” you want the audience to have on their mind as they leave the theater? I always feel if the title doesn’t happen early on, you can find it within an idea you want bothering them.


Don Webb: I woke up with this on my mind. “A Clanging Silence”


So even if I’m not sleeping on it, someone else is 🙂 With more contradiction. That is the key to all of this, I’m sure of it. SHUT UP AND SHOUT is still in my head. And then I think about “shut up,” and “shut,” and the opposite of “shut”—“open.” And I’m back to open secret… but “open” and… “shut.” OPEN AND SHUT.



Cynthia Faith Arsenault: I like this idea I read in reference to opening credit graphic sequences on TV miniseries: “explain everything and nothing.”


And yes. This is it. OPEN AND SHUT has dual layers of meaning, which nearly every title I’ve given my plays has: SAFE, SEEDS, ON THE ROOF, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR… In this case, open and shut as in an open and shut case means there is no doubt; this refers to the secrets. There is no doubt they exist; they’re obvious, open secrets. But taken separately, OPEN AND SHUT refers to the lives Ellen and Bill are living; their lives are shut, closed in, until the secrets that are holding them back come out and are faced, and then they are able to live openly. It says everything about the play, and nothing. I changed the file name to OPEN AND SHUT. After a couple of weeks, I still liked it, and the play is now on the New Play Exchange with that title, which I think is going to stick.


I write this post for four reasons: 1) to show the kind of work that goes into coming up with the right title 2) to illustrate the overwhelming generosity of the playwrights on the Official Playwrights of Facebook and 3) to offer up to all of you these wonderful suggestions, any one of which might be exactly what you need to find the title you’re looking for and, most importantly,


4) Ideas from this discussion found their way into both the synopsis for the play:


For Ellen and her son, Bill, pretending maintains the status quo and protects them from the truth. But when the worst-kept secrets finally clang loud enough to disturb the peace, there’s no escaping their real fears and nowhere to get but out. 



And into dialogue that more clearly defined this theme:


There are secrets.


Is the cat in the bag if its meows can be heard in France?


Maybe its claws are stuck in the burlap.


So a heartfelt thank you to the Official Playwrights of Facebook. I’ll be referring back to this post myself next time I need a title!

UPDATE: When I finished writing this post, I felt okay about the title. Just okay. Never great. The play had a reading in Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, FL, and one of the things to come out of that reading was that it was a coming out story–for the son, not the mother. That was a huge problem, and I realized that the title was contributing to it in no small part. As I revised to eliminate some text that was also contributing to the problem, a new title popped in my head: SONS & LOVERS (with an ampersand, because this is a comedy). I knew it was perfect the minute I thought of it: it described the play, it paid cheeky homage to a classic work, and it was provocative.  It opened at Buffalo United Artists and sold out the entire run, and I have to believe the title was part of the appeal.

I don’t want to discount any of the above advice; it’s all valuable. But I left out the most important: you have to feel it in your gut.


Image result for sons & lovers image hoke



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8 Comments on “ANATOMY OF A TITLE—WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS (Or how to come up with a great title for your play)”

  1. 1 Hillary DePiano said at 8:13 pm on July 29th, 2015:

    As I literally spent the day setting up performances of my new adaptation of The Green Bird can I tell you how hysterical I find it that my suggestion somehow randomly sent you to a Carlo Gozzi play! 🙂

    So glad you got your title, Donna!

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 8:45 pm on July 29th, 2015:

    All things are linked! Thank you for the suggestion that sent me on my way!

  3. 3 Tim Lane said at 9:57 pm on July 29th, 2015:

    Shh-!t’s a Secret

  4. 4 Raymond McNeel said at 12:07 am on July 30th, 2015:

    The obscure, out of context, snippet of dialogue as a play’s title is the single most reflexively used method for play titles. It’s become so cliche you can instantly recognized the speech deliberately put in a character’s mouth to justify the profound and obscure metaphor the phrase is intended to evoke.

  5. 5 Foliage Axe said at 2:31 am on July 30th, 2015:

    Wonderful! Most beneficial to me was the insight into your thought processes, and the discussion of various title divination methods. I agree with Raymond McNeel about the over-use of obscure snippets for titles. I’m having trouble finishing my play and was hoping a title might help me finesse the finale; I changed my mind twice on that plan just reading this blog! My play is being written expressly for our local am-dram theatre, so not just characters and content must be locally-appropriate, but the title also needs to ‘fit’ with other productions. Thanks for so much to chew on, and congrats on finding the perfect title for your own play.

  6. 6 donnahoke said at 7:56 am on July 30th, 2015:

    Interesting, though the first two titles I tried were of that method (something from dialogue), they never really felt right. I do think it can work (my very first play actually is named this way, but the phrase really has resonance for the entire play), but that more often than not, it’s not the best method to use.

  7. 7 Chas Belov said at 4:40 am on August 1st, 2015:

    Hmmm, interesting to see such agony over a title – thank you for sharing your process. In my case, not that I never change it, the title often comes first, inspiring the play. Definitely the case with My Visit to America, Evil Fan, and Alex Drove a Red Car. Writing the first draft of a full-length play, now that’s something I struggle over.

  8. 8 donnahoke said at 9:52 am on August 1st, 2015:

    Chas — As I mentioned, that is nearly always the case with me, but this play proved difficult and my original title just didn’t feel right. This has only ever happened once before. — Donna

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