Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 Apr 2010, 9:00 a.m.

Ever Since You've Been Around

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Leonard, Not-My-Ex Dan, Jacob and I saw the always-fun Kevin Geeks Out curated talk-video-slideshow-quiz fest last night. Towards the end, we saw an enticing trailer for next month's alien encounter-themed show, the soundtrack to which was "Top of the World" by the Carpenters.

As I listen to the lyrics, the immediately spooky one that grabs me is "Something in the wind has learned my name." If licensing fees for lyrics quotations in fiction weren't so impossibly high (I could be wrong), someone like Aaron Sorkin or J. Michael Straczynski would have grabbed that for an episode title.

Not to get all Leonard's six-part meditation on how video game titles work on you, but there is a fairly common type of title for a short story or a TV episode that quotes a song lyric, line of poetry/Shakespeare/the Bible, or other well-known phrase. Leonard and I were looking at the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 episode lists to find titles we liked and disliked, and we saw a lot of references. For fairly obscure references ("And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place") a big long phrase is good. But if your audience is already familiar with the cliche, you can just excerpt the evocative bit ("Passing Through Gethsemane," "And Now For A Word," "Distant Voices," "Favor the Bold," "Sacrifice of Angels," "You are Cordially Invited," "In the Pale Moonlight," "When It Rains..."). Unfortunately, for some phrases, even the excerpt is already a cliche ("By Any Means Necessary," "If Wishes Were Horses," "Nor the Battle to the Strong," "Once More Unto the Breach," "'Til Death Do Us Part," "Strange Bedfellows"). You can kind of get away with Latin ("Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges") or translations from Greek ("The Exercise of Vital Powers") whilst staying classy.

This comes up in short story titles as well. Leonard was just reading a story called "I Pray the Lord My Soul to Keep" or some other line from that prayer, and we batted around "My Soul to Keep" as a better title -- still a cliche, though.

I was just looking at Sorkin titles (Sports Night, West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and talked with Leonard about them for about ten minutes, less actually arguing and more lining up topics for future discussion. (Examples: why do we disagree on "Evidence of Things Not Seen" and "Mr. Willis of Ohio," what's interesting about "We Killed Yamamoto," when do we like and dislike numbers in titles, and is Leonard's pro-science bias leading him to like "Eppur Si Muove" better than other non-English quote titles?) But overall, we like non-remix evocative phrases -- originals, of course, as well as quotes.

Some more thoughts on episode titles. Yours? What do you like and dislike?


17 Apr 2010, 9:14 a.m.

A few footnotes:

Freshman year of college, my pals called me "the English major" partially because (if I recall correctly) I referred to TNG episodes by title rather than season/number or stardate.

A friend told me that there is a Gilmore Girls episode in which people mention Nag Hammadi and never explain its significance; characters' questions go unanswered. The ep title: "Nag Hammadi Is Where They Found the Gnostic Gospels." That's fun.