Why I Like Chapter Titles

One of the things I remember best about opening a book for the first time when I was a kid was reading the table of contents.  Often I’d make my mind up about whether the story was going to be any good or not based on that page alone.  If the chapters sounded interesting and cool, well then it stood to reason the book would be cool too.  Even after I’d started reading the book, sometimes I’d flip back to the table of contents and try to imagine how the story was going to get to the place hinted at in the title of any particular chapter.  Sometimes I’d be delighted, sometimes I’d be amazed, and sometimes I’d sigh and think the author hadn’t done a good job at all. 

So, when it came time for me to write my first YA fantasy, I naturally decided to have chapter titles.  I mean, I’m trying to get readers interested any way I can.  Maybe there are still a few folks out there who think of chapter titles the way I used to – road signs that would help me share a great adventure with the characters. Titling each chapter doesn’t seem to be done as much as it used to be forty or fifty years ago (or a hundred and fifty), and it also seems to be done more for children’s books than YA or adult, but I still enjoy all those early glimpses into the story ahead. 

Does anyone else feel the same way?  And, if you do write chapter titles, what are the reasons why?

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I think I’ve really only done chapter titles once, and then it happened quite spontaneously: for some reason I started adding them on, when I’d never done it before. (This was the sixth novel I’d written, so I had a basis for comparison.) Doppelganger had chapter titles by the end because they wanted to flag the Miryo and Mirage chapters by pov, and that looked less weird to me if it were a sub-header to a chapter title. But that book didn’t ask for them the way the other one did.

    When I try to think about it, I feel like I’ve read very few books with them. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle are the only things that leap to mind now; I’m sure there have been more, but I can’t think of them.

    It may be they’ve fallen out of favor because they break up the flow of the narrative, reminding the reader that this is an artificial construct, rather than a brief window into a real person’s life.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    There is that whole ‘immersion’ thing you mention. It’s one of the reasons why tight first and third person POVs tend to rule the world these days, rather than the more distant third person omniscient of older fiction. Is our reading an experience, or an entertainment?

  3. 3. Leanne

    On a more practical feature of chapter titles in juvenile/YA books –

    I substitute teach in the local public schools, where they teach reading from published books rather than basal readers. One of the things that teachers usually do when introducing a new book to a reading group is to talk about the chapter titles and the blurb on the back, to see if we can make any inferences about what will happen in the book or who the main characters are or any of that – precisely the road map feature you describe. Beginning/developing readers are also more likely to treat chapter breaks as places to stop reading for the day (books are usually assigned in chapter increments), which is another reason why they like chapter titles – they’ll remind the reader a hint of what’s going on (and make it easier to find where the reader left off last time). In the juvenile category and into the “high-interest” YA category (i.e., lower reading level but teen-friendly topic), most of the readers haven’t yet developed the ability to retain complex plots over multiple reading sittings and/or make inferences about what must have happened or is about to happen, so chapter titles serve the dual purpose of helping to make the book more accessible to them and also giving the readers a way to start developing those inferential skills.

  4. 4. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, I don’t use chapter titles when I write, and I suspect it’s because I pay so little attention to them when I read. I have the same problem with books that rely on stating the date and/or time at the top of the chapter. I jump right over it, and only when I get into the narrative do I realize I missed some important information.

    To each his own.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Karen –

    Oops. I date-stamped the scenes in my next novel. :-)

    I wouldn’t call that information critical, though. The stamps are there mostly for two reasons: one, to add to the in-text signals when I jump the narrative over about fourteen months between the first and second part, and two, because I wanted to place-stamp the scenes as well, and that looked more natural with the date in there, too. As for the place-stamping, that’s mostly part and parcel of my desire to ground the book firmly in the real geography of London.

    But it’s definitely bogus when the author relies on headers to make up for a lack of clarity in the narrative. (Ditto with maps and glossaries.)

  6. 6. SMD

    I rather like chapter titles. I used them in my blog novel, but I don’t know if it was because I like them, or because the novel is YA, or because they act as really good place markers that can keep an author on track, or all of the above. They are rather neat, unless the title gives too much away about what is going to happen.

    I say use them in adult fiction. Why not? If they’re interesting, use them.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Leanne -

    Interesting. I had no idea chapters and chapter titles might have educational uses, though I should have suspected it. I like to stop at chapter breaks too, and the anticipation I describe has a lot to do with inference. (Though sometimes it’s hard to stop if you keep running into good cliffhangers.)

    Karen –

    Though I pay attention to titles, I must confess that I pay little attenton to time and date headings unless the story isn’t linear. Or it turns out I’ve missed something by not paying attention.

    Marie -

    But a good map’s even better than good chapter titles! You are right, though. Everything we’re talking about here is extra frosting on the cake. The cake has to be right or we’re not going to pay any attention to the frosting at all.

    SMD –

    I agree. I get just as excited by the chapter titles in Bleak House as I do in Stuart Little.

  8. 8. Karen Wester Newton

    Marie– I don’t mind if people put dates/times in, but authors should be aware that some readers skip right over them. If the narrative stands without them, fine. To me, they’re like the “Stardate 1531″ stuff at the beginning of the old Star Trek episodes. Who knew what that meant? It sounded cool though.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    I use them when I write YA, but only rarely when I write books for an adult audience.

  10. 10. bob charters

    What about chapter titles that are made up of a series of short phrases, as what Mark Twain did for Tom Sawyer? Sometimes the whole chapter, because it’s composed of many scenes, can’t be made to fit neatly into a one word or single phrase description. I did that for one novel that hasn’t been accepted just yet. It wasn’t a sci fi, and I thought that style fit the general mood and period covered by the narrativel. I’m toying with the idea of doing it with my current work, a space opra, in which each chapter is divided into scenes, each labled with the narrative point of view.

    I’ve done just about every chapter title style as I saw it fit with the style and mood of the book.

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    There are many different ways of titling chapters, and only a couple of not (with and without numbers, as far as I can tell). Whatever works best for the story is what I say.

  12. 12. Steve Buchheit

    Then there are quotes from other works at the beginning of chapters, even quotes from fictitious works. For me, if it’s a serious “literature!” (must be said from the craggy cliff, shouted into the crashing waves and shrieking wind while holding the manuscript pages tight in your hand) I don’t see them working all that well. But for humor sake, I think they work excellently.

    “Phase one in which Doris gets her oats…”

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    One of my pet peeves is when writers quote ‘real world’ authors in fantasies that have no connection to the ‘real world’. Throws me right out of the story.

    Then there are those old eighteenth century novels which have a summary of what’s going to happen at the beginning of each chapter.

  14. 14. Keith

    I number the chapters for my first draft and then add chapter titles on the second. I like chapter titles for one simple reason: point of reference.

    Say you read this great book a few years back and you remember this choice phrase, in, you think, the party scene where the drunken astronomer is hitting on a lesbian from another planet and doesn’t even realize it. What chapter was that in? 16? 17? 23? Or was it in the chapter called “The Lugubrious Hootenanny”? If you have chapter titles, the latter is at least a likely place to start looking.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Keith –

    Excellent reason for chapter titles. And I want to read that one.

  16. 16. Keith

    You’ll be able to, as soon as I find a publisher.

  17. 17. S.C. Butler

    Luck to you, then.

  18. 18. SteveG

    And if you do title your chapters should there be a table of contents? Not all books with chapter titles have them.

    And, as you all probably know, Terry Pratchett doesn’t do chapters at all. Except for The Colour Of Magic, which had 4 parts. With labels.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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