03 August 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Very Long Titles

I've always been fascinated by titles. It's usually a case of Whoa, what a great title, and then Why couldn't I have thought of one like that? And, thankfully less often, What was the author thinking?--I could've done better than that. The truth is, the titles of movies, novels, and stories come in all categories--good, bad, and ugly.

The good

I think some are so well done they're worth mentioning: The Guns of Navarone, Atlas Shrugged, The Eagle Has Landed, The High and the Mighty, The Caine Mutiny, Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Tin Star," Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jurassic Park, Lonesome Dove, The Grapes of Wrath, The Silence of the Lambs, Blazing Saddles, The Princess Bride, The Maltese Falcon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, "The Gift of the Magi," Ben-Hur, Sands of the Kalahari, Dances With Wolves, East of Eden, Back to the Future, A Fish Called Wanda, The Seven-Year Itch, Our Man Flint, The Usual Suspects, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Gypsy Moths, No Country for Old Men, The Sand Pebbles, Fail-Safe, Gone With the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and so on. The one thing all these have in common is that they are unique--each is one of a kind.

An aside, here. I also love the way some authors of fiction have used their titles almost as marketing trademarks: Janet Evanovich's numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly; James Patterson's nursery rhymes: Jack and Jill, Three Blind Mice, Along Came a Spider; Sue Grafton's alphabet: A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse; Martha Grimes's English pubs: The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, Jerusalem Inn; John D. MacDonald's colors: The Green Ripper, The Deep Blue Good-by, A Purple Place for Dying; Robert Ludlum's three-word titles: The Bourne Identity, The Matarese Circle, The Rhinemann Exchange; James Michener's one-word titles: Centennial, Chesapeake, Hawaii; John Sandford's "prey" titles: Night Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey; etc.

Does length matter?

A question I've often heard writers ask is, "Does my title need to be short?" Or, in other words, "Is a long title a disadvantage?" I don't know the answer. Looking back at my own short stories, I've found that almost all my titles are short--between one and three words. But I don't remember making a conscious effort to keep them short. I just try to come up with something appropriate and--if possible--intriguing. I'm not always successful at that, but I try. And I love titles that turn out to have double meanings, or meanings that are revealed only in the course of the story. Like my one-to-three-word titles, I have far too many four-word titles to list, but here are some of mine that are five words or more: ""On the Road With Mary Jo," "The Red-Eye to Boston," "A Nice Little Place in the Country," "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," "The Moon and Marcie Wade," "Take the Money and Ron," "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," "Turn Right at the Light," "A Message for Private Kirby," "Can You Hear Me Now?" "The Browns and the Grays," "A Surprise for Digger Wade."

One thing that I find interesting is that there are a LOT of movie and novel titles that are long--some of them extremely long. And some of those titles are surprisingly good. Another thing that's interesting, at least to me, is that some of the longest titles aren't that hard to remember; they're just long. In fact I can recall some titles that aren't very long but are hard to remember, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.

Title contenders

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some very long movie titles. They're in no particular order, but my favorites are at the top of the list. As you also might've expected, some of the titles farther down the line are bad and some are ugly. I'll leave it to you to decide which are which.

Note: Only titles of eight words or more are included. (I hated to leave out It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, yes, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I had to draw the line somewhere.) I also didn't include any documentary titles or any titles containing colons, parentheses, or "or." Examples:
- Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do With It)
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes

Here, then, after my lame disclaimers, is my lineup:

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012)

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forgive Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967)

Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God . . . Be Back by Five (1998)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)

To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)

The Ranger, the Cook, and the Hole in the Sky (1995)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (2002)

A Quiet Little Neighborhood, a Perfect Little Murder (1990)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2011)

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

It's Better to Be Wanted for Murder Than Not to Be Wanted at All (2003)

I Could Never Have Sex With a Man Who Had Such Little Regard for My Husband (1973)

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013)

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973)

What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013)

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charente Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1967)

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916)

What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1972)

The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Super Bad About It (2010)

I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (1993)

You Gotta Walk It If You Like to Talk It or You'll Lost That Beat (1971)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space (1965)

The Heart of a Lady as Pure as a Full Moon Over the Place of Medical Salvation (1955)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)

Since I've neglected them so far, here are some long-titled novels and children's books:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell

Grab Onto Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, Bryan Charles

The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, Charles Bukowski

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, Lisa Shanahan

The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, Edgardo Vega Yunque

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won Off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, David Forrest

Sheila Devine Is Dead and Living in New York, Gail Parent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List, Janette Rallison

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judie Viorst

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente

Okay, back to the movies

The best (in my opinion) one-word movie titles: Vertigo, Giant, Shane, Fargo, Goldfinger, Tombstone, M*A*S*H, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Psycho, Nashville, Crash, Rocky, Papillon, Casino, Platoon, Holes, Ghostbusters, Splash, Memento, Twister, Witness, Deliverance, Seabiscuit, Chinatown, Sideways, Titanic, Hondo, Flashdance, Poltergeist, Network, Spartacus, Jaws, Signs, Aliens, Misery, Casablanca.

And, last AND least, some two-letter and one-letter titles: Pi, Go, RV, It, Up, If . . ., F/X, I. Q., Da, E.T., M, G, W., Z, O, $.

Had enough of this? Good, because those are all I can think of. As always, please let me know of any I've missed, and maybe some of the titles of your own stories and novels. Do your titles tend to be long or short--or does it matter? Do you have any that are very long or very short?

I'll close with the longest movie title of them all (I think). Brace yourself:

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh-Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead, Part 2 (1991).

Don't you wish you'd thought of that one?


  1. John, titles can be long or short, but I like them to be evocative. Sometimes it's kind of cool when the title phrase is slipped into the text of the story. And you mentioned one of my childhood movies, horrible, but fun, and some of it takes place at the Long Beach Pike so that gives it an extra couple points in my book: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

    I am not a robot.

  2. Elmore Leonard gave us some good one word titles: GLITZ. KILLSHOT, SWAG, PRONTO, STICK

    A few movie more long movie titles:



    I remember some cool long science fiction short stories titles:

    "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison

    "The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth by Roger Zelazny

    "I See a Man Sitting in a Chair and the Chair is Biting his Leg" by Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley

  3. Hey Paul -- Yep, I too like it when the title is part of the text of the story, and the reader/viewer doesn't realize it until later. (Like To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.)

    I have made a note that you are not a robot.

    O'Neil, I can't believe I forgot The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. And I love the Harlan Ellison title.

    I should've done a quick list of one-word novel titles, too. (You're right that Elmore Leonard did a lot of those.)

    Thanks, guys, for the comments.

  4. Fun post, John. I agree with everyone who says an evocative title is a joy to be read.

    I also like it when the title works into the text of the story somewhere. I did that on Dark Gonna Catch Me Here, which is a line from the Robert Johnson song "Crossroad Blues." Hit Somebody is a catch-phrase that the derby girls often use in that book, too.

    My cover designer prefers short titles so he can maneuver the text around whatever graphics he comes up with, but I have a long title we both love. We discarded several earlier (and shorter) titles that didn't quite work before my wife came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz.

    That said, I often go through several working titles before I find one that really works.

  5. Steve, two of your titles--Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz--are winners right off the bat. When you choose a great title like that, beforehand, I think it almost serves as a confidence-builder (and security blanket, maybe) to the writer as you construct the story/novel.

    I also like it when there's a "rhythm" to these long titles, when they just roll easily off the tongue. An example of that in a novel title, one I didn't put in the list because it's not eight words in length, is The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. It's just easy to say, and remember. I don't think that one was ever adapted into a movie. Another title with exactly that same rhythm is the Peckinpah movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. (Those titles might not have a lot of words, but they sure have a lot of syllables.)

    And yes, I too go through a LOT of working titles before I come up with the one I'll use for a story.

    Another great novel title that didn't make it into my list, because it's only seven words, is The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker. By Ed McBain, I think.

  6. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

  7. Hey Don--thanks for stopping in. Actually, one of my strange rules was not to include in the main list any titles with a colon or an "or," because those are almost always very long. I did mention it, though, because it is a cool title (and one that almost nobody seems to know).

    Of those that DO include the word "or," I think my favorite title is Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. And it's a good movie, too.

  8. Something I haven't mentioned: I wonder if sometimes authors choose very long titles just for the purpose of being different, and maybe hoping to attract attention the title wouldn't otherwise get. But something I never thought of was the point that Steve mentioned: fitting a very long title onto the cover of a book could, I guess, cause problems.

    Just some afterthoughts.

  9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A great film worthy of its longish title.

  10. Can't wait to see that one, Larry!! Thanks.

  11. Want to add – I like long titles but I've resisted in giving my novels and short story collections a long title because the titles are hard to read in thumbnails online. It can be done. Just a thought

  12. O'Neil, I'd never heard of that, or thought of it. Good point!

    Once again, I do wonder if some long titles are chosen JUST because they're different. And--who knows--I guess that could be a good thing. I, for one, almost never choose a long title, certainly not longer than half a dozen words. Maybe I'm just not imaginative enough.

    Thanks for that advice, O'Neil.

  13. Oh, those are good! I'd never heard of that last one! Someone mentioned a movie I hadn't thought of in years: "What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?"

  14. Good one, Jeff. I saw that movie when I was in college--if I remember, it was sort of a Candid Camera deal, with Allen Funt.

    I'd heard of that last movie, but I've never known anyone who saw it. (I don't think I'd want to.)

  15. Swept Away... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August was a great Italian film starring Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato (original title Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto).

    My stories almost always start with a title. So far, my shortest have been three letters ("SOS" and "ASU"), and my longest has been eight words ("Last Call at the Bar of Invariable Length"). I seem to have a preference for titles that follow the pattern "The (Noun) of (Noun)," which I've used quite a few times: "The Tree of Life," "The Sword of God," "The Night of Power," and several others, including "The City of Light," which is forthcoming in EQMM.

    Fun post! (But you left out song titles! "The Talking Green Beret New Super Yellow Hydraulic Banana Teenybopper Blues," "The I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," and wasn't there a WWII song called something like "I'm a Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank, and I Want to Go Home to My Yokohama Mama Real Soon"?...)

  16. Just checked: it was a Hoagy Carmichael song, and the title was "I'm a Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank on the Streets of Yokohama with my Honolulu Mama Doin’ Those Beat-o, Beat-o Flat-On-My-Seat-o, Hirohito Blues," and the Website That Shall Not Be Cited says it holds the Guinness record for longest title of a commercially published song....

  17. Josh, I'd never heard of that movie! What a great title.

    And yes, I missed a great opportunity, not exploring song titles. One that comes to mind is "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life." Others (that I'm not sure were REAL titles): "I Get Tears in My Ears When I Lay on My Back and Think About You" and "The Creek's Washed Out and I Can't Swim and My Baby's on the Other Side." (Thank God for Country Music.)

    I love the Hoagy Carmichael title. I'll have to remember that one.


  18. Swept Away was remade in English in 2002 as, simply, Swept Away, starring Madonna. The Italian version, directed by Lina Wertmuller, was infinitely better. You can watch it for free, subtitled in English, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGKBKT91KIU, or (ugh) dubbed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzAEF5g35uw

    And, if we're gonna move on to song titles, there's also "The Boy From Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz," lyrics by Sondheim, music by Mary Rogers (daughter of Richard Rogers, as in Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein). The song was performed by Linda Lavin in The Mad Show, which I was fortunate enough to see several times during its Off-Broadway run in 1966. The title is generally shorted to "The Boy From," and in the show's program the lyricist is listed as "Nom de Plume." Listen to LL sing it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNkvByFVvI

  19. All RIGHT! Thanks, Josh, for the info and the links.

    I love this kind of stuff.


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