Tuesday, August 7, 2012

TTYU Retro: 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. Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" springs to mind. He was like a master of chapter titles. I especially liked how a chapter would be named after the inn/tavern where it takes place. George R R Martin titles his based on the main character.
    I find them most useful in outlining - I won't know exactly what else will happen, but it reminds me of the key plot point to include.
    I just finished yet another R A Salvatore novel and I'd find myself glancing at the heading, then flipping back to it before starting the next chapter.
    A friend suggested journal writing in character. The headings will probably be either dates and locations, maybe lessons learned or creatures encountered.
    To each their own

  2. Realmwright, thanks for commenting. I agree that chapter titles are very useful in drafting and outlining stages. I know some people don't read them at all, but their usefulness to authors makes up for this in my mind. For those who do use them, they provide a great theme-priming device.

  3. Dorothy Sayers uses Chapter titles to ground the reader in some important idea of the chapter, and I do this instinctively.

    It gives me a chance to add what Sol Stein calls "resonance": a connection to the world outside the story. I mix appropriate biblical quotations (short - no more than a line) with other quotations, some of them my own inventions if I can't find the right quotation.

    The intent is to provide a framework. If I can figure out how to put those chapter heads into running heads in an ebook (not sure it can be done, as the reader gets to wrap the text and choose font size), I will include them - my chapters are long. If not, the running heads will be in the printed versions - I find them a useful navigation aid in long books.

    It is kind of like a mini-premise or a mini-logline for the chapter - without adding length or pages to the whole.

    During the actual writing, I use placeholders with the main point (but no particular grace). I find that the right title for the chapter pops out of the process of writing the chapter.

    A few from the WIP:
    King's Gambit
    On trial for their lives*
    Hook, line, and sinker
    Holy Innocents bring war*
    Baptism by desire
    (the * ones aren't quite right yet)

    It is a nice part of the fun.