Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Considering chapter titles?

I know plenty of people who never read chapter titles. They don't want to bother with them, or maybe don't even notice them, and so they skip right by and they'll tell you those chapter titles might as well not be there at all.

So why use chapter titles?

I admit I don't always use them - my last novel didn't seem to lend itself to them at all. But my Varin novels have always had them, even when I first started writing them.

Chapter titles can do two really interesting and useful things: they identify the core of your chapter, and they allow a writer to have an independent conversation with readers. I'll take a look at each of these.

First, a chapter title can help you to identify the core of your chapter. You might remember in yesterday's post when I talked about struggling with a chapter where every event seemed to have the same importance, and it was just "stuff happening" instead of building to a climax... One of the first symptoms of a chapter that has this problem is that I can't find a title for it. Not all of my chapter titles do the same thing, but often enough they'll address some theme that the events of the chapter contribute to. Other times they'll be directly linked to the climactic event or significance of the chapter - and therefore, if I know lots of stuff that has to happen in the chapter but I don't know what to call it, I've already got a hint that something might be missing. This is a little bit like writing your query before you write a novel, to make sure you're on track with the core idea (what the book is about). The only difference is that it's on the chapter level, not the book level.

Second, the chapter titles can be a really useful communication tool between writer and reader. Why? Because no matter how close the point of view you use in your narrative, the chapter titles fall outside that. Chapter titles can be in any point of view you want - any of your characters, or even your own. You should be careful not to put spoilers in them, but you can put in teasers (like my chapter named "Ambush"). You can also keep a bit of distance from the overall plot, or help focus reader attention on tiny thematic clues by labeling what to look for up front.

Now of course, you may note what I said earlier, that some people don't read chapter titles (their loss, really). Yeah, sure. You don't need them. But they can be useful for your writing process (because of #1 above), and they can also be fun and informative, and give you a chance to feel that nudge-nudge-wink confidentiality with your reader.

It's something to think about.


  1. I agree with you - on all points. I use them and I can't start a chapter without a title idea. At the same time, I barely notice them in books. But there's another reason I like using them. It keeps me from saving a chapter file in the wrong folder and wiping out a chapter from another work since I save chapters separately while I work. - Ann

  2. Hmm, I never really thought much about chapter titles or how to use them. Thanks for the ideas. I like the first idea - that titles can help define the core of the chapter. I think I'll use that in revising.

  3. Don't go too overboard, either. Putting the climax into the title lowers the tension. Hints are fine. "Chapter 15: They Do the Deed" is a lot different than "Chapter 15: Getting Really Close".

    Check out some "old" work like Jules Verne. The ones I've seen have, in essence, an outline of the chapter at the start. I'm often tempted just to scan to get to the part I think I'm interested in.

  4. I'm doing something like this with one of my projects, only, instead of titles, I have wise sayings, such as "When one accepts a Truth, one gains an Ally," that precede each journal entry. These fictional quotes tend to emphasize the theme or main focus of the entry that follows them. They also help with worldbuilding--I have to come up with fictional "wise ones" who've made these quotes and that makes me fill in a bit of the country's history each time I do.

  5. In my current project I'm using chapter titles for the first time, and I have to say that they do help me focus on the "main point" of what happens. Since keeping the narrative tight is something I tend to struggle with, that’s a big plus. Also, as the novel I'm working on has multiple POVs, chapter titles also help highlighting the common theme if there's one.
    I tend to panic slightly when I can't find a title for the chapter I'm writing, because that means I don't know what the focus should be, but that's another story. Heh. And, at least, I'm aware of the problem!

  6. I haven't tried to use chapter titles yet. I use Scrivener and have each scene as a separate subfile in case I need to move them around. Those just have brief notations to identify them.

    I've read and enjoyed books that have chapter titles and some that don't. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles have lengthy chapter titles describing what the scene is about, but they are humorously worded. It probably depends on the story structure for whether titles add anything or not. I usually read them, sometimes even after I've read the book a few times.

  7. Great points! I have just recently noticed this myself in the titles I come up with for each scene. If I can't find a title, then the scene has no center point. I'm looking forward to translating this to chapter titles, too. It's a great sanity check for writers to test their scenes.

  8. I always read chapter titles. And when I'm writing my own, I usually use them as teasers. They can also remind me what the chapter is supposed to be about and help me stay on track.

    Nice post!

  9. I love chapter titles. Like the title of a book, or little word illustrations, they create anticipation.

  10. Oh, my goodness, all these comments while I was stuck on the plane! Thank you all!

    Ann, I hadn't thought about the chapter title/file organization issue (because I keep my novels in larger files), but I could see how it would help!

    Jennifer, good luck with your revisions.

    Bruce, I agree, it's good to avoid outright spoilers. Winnie the Pooh did the outline thing too.

    A. Shelton, I like the sayings idea. It fits with the idea that you can use any voice you like in a chapter title. I'm sure you can get some great info and flavor in that way!

    khorsheed, sounds like you're on the right track!

    Good points, Jaleh.

    Thanks, M.E. Summer - I hope it works as well for you with your chapters!

    maasmith, thanks for commenting!

    Daring Novelist, anticipation is always good!

    Thanks again to everyone.