Thoughts on Chapter Titles

Is it better to title a chapter or just number it?

The gurus, sages and soothsayers of the publishing industry really don’t seem to have a clear answer on this subject. I’ve done some searching and still haven’t found a definitive answer. It all boils down to taste.

Even among readers this question can’t be answered. Some readers get enticed by the titles; it may prompt them to purchase the book, or to press on into the night way past bedtime. Other readers prefer numbers and imagine their own title.

openbook.jpg

Open Book by Dave Dugdale used under CC License

It would seem like this is a parallel phenomenon to the character description conundrum. Some want a total description, while others want to create their own mental picture.

I truly believe this lack of concrete answers permits me to simply apply my own taste and work from there. Chefs do that all the time. They might add, substitute, or remove an ingredient based upon their own taste. I’ve admitted to doing that for some of the lovely meals from my Best Recipes Ever section on this blog.

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Personal taste time

I always skim through the table of contents when I’m browsing in a bookstore. Yes, I find the chapter titles to be a curious enhancement and enticement. They act as a builder of anticipation and help to give a coherent organization to the story. Each chapter becomes a mini-story in itself yet contributes to the whole. I think they are more telling than a blurb. Also, I have to admit that there is a unique charm that stems from chapter titles. After all, Tolkien did it, and it was his works that put me on the path of the fantasy genre.

Some naming conventions

A Place Name

Name a place where something important to your plot or main character is going to take place, like a clandestine meeting or a battle. This is great for fantasy authors, because you get the hidden benefit prompting readers to study the map of your world. Tolkien used this technique in The Fellowship of the Ring: Book Two Chapter V: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

A Character Name

This is a good way to introduce a new character or to shift the point of view. I’ve seen a few novels where different characters experience the same event and each chapter is dedicated to how each of those characters perceives or is affected by the event. Tolkien did this to introduce Aragorn under his alias in The Fellowship of the Ring: Book One Chapter X: Strider. George R.R. Martin does this all the time in the Game of Thrones series for different P.O.V.’s

Your Main Character’s Thoughts or Quotes

This could be a great retort, a simple quote, inner thought, or a surprise for your main character. From Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes Part III Chapter 7 “This is John Galt speaking.”

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In the end

I believe the bottom line should go something like this. Chapter titles are not going to transform a ho-hum novel into a page turner, nor will it turn a great novel into unpublishable trash. Just do what your artistic instincts lead you to do.

Do other authors prefer to create titles? As a reader, do you prefer them?

20 thoughts on “Thoughts on Chapter Titles

  1. I must admit I do like chapter titles in my children’s books, but I think it depends on the subject matter – in one of my current projects (a thriller) I’m using days of the week instead of titles. I think you have to go with what works for that particular book.

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  2. I prefer in addition to chapter numbers to see chapter titles. It pays to advertise. The reader’s own imagination draws them on. It’s my personal preference, that’s all.

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  3. I agree with you: titling chapters is up to the author (or publisher). There are no set rules, so you can do what you want (for the most part).

    Personally, I used chapter titles in all of my books so far except one and that one, I put a small picture below the chapter number.

    I do it because I enjoy it. In children’s chapter books, I think they should be included but in adult books, not so much. Although I do it in my adult romance and fantasy novels.

    I use the quote version, extracting an interesting quote from the chapter to entertain readers. I haven’t used a place name or character name yet–that I remember. I’m creating titles now for the fantasy novel I’m working on now; perhaps I’ll give one of those a try.

    As a reader, I take them if they are there, leave them if they are not. I have no preference. They sometimes add to the chapter and other times, the title is misleading, which generates disappointment.

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    • Hi Diane, always good to hear from you.
      Some of the pieces I read on this subject stated that a chapter title must be meaningful to the content of the chapter. I use them all of the time because that is how I plan out a novel. But I guess that is the subject of another blog post. 🙂

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  4. Great post! As you said, it is up to the individual author/publisher. The thing with chapter titles is: you want to entice without giving away the surprise or twist. I prefer to name my chapters by the character it involves so that the reader gets to know the character but still remains ignorant of the upcoming excitement.
    rsgullett.wordpress.com

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  5. Hmm, that’s a lot to ponder. I can definitely see both schools of thought on this. I think in the end, it’s going to be neutral for me. I don’t think titles will influence me one way or another. I don’t mind them in certain fiction, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, but for thrillers, I believe the title might give away what I want the reader to be surprised about in that chapter. 🙂

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  6. I’m split on this, Ernesto. I’ve long since stopped scanning the table of contents when choosing a book, preferring a couple of quick peeks at the content. I agree that it can offer a teaser that might cause interest on the store shelves but when I’m reading a book it tends to slow things down. And I agree with Rachel in that it might constitute a spoiler sometimes. Interesting thing to ponder, however.

    I do not use titles in my own writing.

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    • Hello Steve, welcome aboard.
      I still read the table of contents instead of the blurb.
      Of course there is no right or wrong on this matter. I started under that premise, and after this post, the responses here and on Google+ tell me that authors and readers are quite split on the subject.

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  7. I usually name my chapters after thematic elements present in that chapter. That said, the latest book is full of chapters named after the POV character in that book.

    I honestly think it all comes down to what kind of work you want the title to do. 🙂

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