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Chapter Titles: Should I, Or Shouldn’t I?

April 11, 2013 by Kiersi

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.

Then I stopped on Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. This one not only has titles–they are brilliant titles.

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?


13 Comments »

  1. As a reader, I prefer to not be spoiled in anyway. And I find that most of the books I’ve read that have chapter titles spoil a bit of the fun for me. The titles often times force me to anticipate something that’s going to happen in the chapter, and spoils a bit of the surprise for me. Books, for me, are longform cinema. I try my best to visualize every scene as it happens in my mind and really live it out. Movies don’t typically pause between each scene and say “The Chase” right before an epic car chase begins. It might be nitpicky on my part, but it destroys some of the immersion for me.

    I’ve been reading the Mistborn series lately, I’m on the third book “The Hero of Ages” right now. (If you haven’t read this series, drop everything and read it right now. Brandon Sanderson is a freaking genius!) I love how he handles this. He doesn’t give each chapter a title, but what he does do is preface each chapter with a portion of text from a document that is relevant to the story. (I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read it) It’s really interesting because it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the chapter, but it’s a interesting piece of information about the events in the past that shaped the world that the main story takes place within.

    Obviously this wouldn’t work in all books, but I love the idea of getting little bite-sized pieces of information that your reader can keep in the back of their mind as they venture forth into the next chapter.

    • TIL this comment system does not allow for line breaks. Sorry about that wall of text up there!

      • Kiersi says:

        Agh, I know! I’m going to fix that after this comment. I’ve been meaning to read Brandon Sanderson, I hear he’s a word wizard. I think the “information they can keep in the back of their mind” is a good way to look at it.

  2. here’s what i’m taking away from this post:

    you would like to read all my chapter titles and decide if i should use them.

    thanks! 😉

  3. In the books I’ve read that have them, I love them – a lot. I like them when they’re witty and/or amusing, and really stay true to the narrator’s voice or the mores and mood of the story.

  4. Ruth says:

    Kiersi,

    Chapters titles can be a real boon, especially in a long work. We were just talking about _The Hobbit_ here at home and we were able to navigate much of the discussion by referring to the chapter titles. Chapter titles can be like appetizers that enhance the experience rather than ruining one’s appetite.

    Ruth

  5. I tried to title my chapters once and I think I quit after chapter four. LOL. It just doesn’t work for me.

  6. Writerlious says:

    LOVED this book. Thanks for this great analysis on her use of titles. 🙂

  7. Jim Snell says:

    Not even sure whether to have chapters in the one I’m writing now. Maybe just breaks.

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