For some reason, this question of whether or not to title chapters has come up on Twitter a lot lately. I first debated it last month, when I was revising a book and realizing that my chapter titles really contributed nothing to the book as a whole. They were troublesome to write–they had to be pithy and relevant–and kept changing as my chapter order/content changed.
I tried to think of the number of books I’ve read this year that did or did not use chapter titles; what I figured out? 95% of them don’t.
Okay, well, that’s pretty clear. Most authors are choosing to avoid titling their individual chapters. Books with multiple points of view, such as Beth Revis’s Shades of Earth–that one made sense to me because the narrator’s name (Amy or Elder) is listed at the top of each chapter. So, that sort of takes the place of the title.
The other books I skimmed were books with relatively short chapters–5-15 pages each. That also made sense, because it would be quite a chore to label 30+ chapters.
So why? Why do they work for me? Why do most authors avoid them?
My hunch is that, going into writing a book, the writer’s first instinct is to summarize the chapter in the title. Well, there are a couple of problems with that.
1. You don’t want to give away the surprise in the title.
2. You don’t want to set up expectations that would detract from the reader’s buildup of suspense.
3. You don’t want to be so mysterious that the reader spends the time he or she should have spent enjoying the story, trying to figure out the meaning of the title.
However, in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I discovered many reasons that chapter titles absolutely can work. What I observed:
1. The title added something to the reader’s understanding of the chapter. E.g., the chapter is about the hero investigating a haunted house. The chapter is titled “The Trespasser.” It adds a new dimension to what the hero is doing–investigating a haunted house, but also trespassing on private property.
2. The chapter title reveals an element of motivation or character that is not revealed in the chapter. Taylor uses chapter titles that are sentence-like in structure (still quite short, 2-5 words) that give us some framework or detail with which to enter the chapter. It sets the reader into a particular frame of mind that changes how the reader interprets the chapter–intentionally.
3. It’s clever. She’s very careful about not being too clever, but sometimes her chapter headings are funny in the context of what we already know about the story. It’s good comic relief if the chapter to come is serious or dramatic.
What are your thoughts about using or not using chapter titles? Do you title your chapters? Why?