Chapter titles…do we need them?

chapter headingsIsn’t it odd how you never particularly notice something that’s a fairly regular occurrence, then suddenly you start to pay special attention to it and even question its purpose? Chapter titles are one of those things.

A book I read recently was a mammoth editing disaster. (Unfortunate, because the writing was actually quite promising and the story not half bad.) But it’s when you’re stumbling over so many errors that you notice the tiniest thing. In this particular novel, amongst many other blunders, the chapter titles were rather random: sometimes there was one (I’m referring to more than just the number of the chapter, i.e. ‘Chapter One’), and sometimes there wasn’t. Considerably irked by the general editing standard, this further lack of consistency needled me even more. However, it got me thinking and then realising that I never really take any notice at all of chapter titles. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a scene break or change of POV, and Chapter One/Two/Three is perfectly adequate. Cryptic titles, I think, are meaningless, unnecessary … and forgettable after the first couple of lines of the chapter. (I am of course talking merely about fiction books.)

That said, I believe there are some instances where the chapter needs some sort of identification beyond its number:

  1. If the POV changes: I’ve read a book that had four sisters’ POV, so it was of course necessary to clarify whose POV the chapter belonged to.
  2. Time shifts: if a story spans a number of years and perhaps leaps backwards and forwards, it needs to be clear to the reader in which era s/he is.
  3. Place: if the story covers a wide geographical area, again, the reader would benefit from knowing where a particular scene is taking place.

Where chapter titles are warranted, however, I’m not so sure a pride-of-place centred heading is required: a side heading would, I think, suffice, as it would still be picked up in the formatting for a TOC and, therefore, still be useful for swift navigation around the novel, if required.

Precedence doesn’t supply much of a pattern, either. Charles Dickens didn’t title all of his books’ chapters. Jane Austen didn’t title any. Interestingly, I picked a dozen books from my bookshelf to see how many of them had titled chapters. The selection included books printed nearly a century ago right up to more recent ones. It was a fifty-fifty result.

But these are just my thoughts on the topic; I’d love to know what you all think about chapter titles…if you think they’re important and if so, why, or if, like me, you think they’re redundant.

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

27 thoughts on “Chapter titles…do we need them?”

  1. I think it depends on the book. As you say, keeping track of POV would be a reason to name them. In my series I do use titles. In my current book I only use chapter numbers as it’s necessary to have something for the TOC. I tink the decision needs to be considered but the answer may vary.

  2. Chapters without titles look off in the e-book version where all you have is a list of one, two three, four on a page of hyperlinks.

    I tend to leave out titles when they will telegraph things to the reader that I don’t want them to know before they get there. In general I like them, partly for the reasons you noted as warranted.

    It’s hard for me to say there should be a general rule about this other than the author’s wont to use them or not. Consistency of formatting is nice, though.

  3. I think that, like the ongoing ‘should there or shouldn’t there be a prologue/introduction’, it depends. Personally, generally, I like chapter headings; it kind of makes each chapter a mini entity within the whole.

  4. I like chapter titles and I miss them a lot. People say they are out of fashion for fiction but for me, reading down a well thought out table of contents is like reading the menu at a restaurant and having it help to anticipate the enjoyment. Just plain old Chapter 1/Chapter 2 etc removes some of the glee of a new book.

  5. I feel that sometimes chapter titles give the reader a point of reference, especially in books where many readers will not be all that familiar with the environment and culture. In my case that’s, Africa, in which many people have seen pictures of the wildlife, but very few know about the cultures, the people and the way trial societies live in the bush. In most I have used chapter titles.

  6. My opinion which (contrary to my norm) I won’t argue is the only true way is … What’s the question again? 🙂

    If it is a number 1, 2, 3, 4 instead of Chapter 1, etc I’ll agree with Malcolm, but only because it looks better.

    I agree with those situations you listed as instances where it makes sense to help the reader stay oriented.

    Beyond that, if they’re there, cool, but please don’t make paying attention to them important to understanding the story beyond those POV and timing things you mentioned. The last book I remember reading where I actually paid attention to chapter titles beyond that was a book where music of the era it took place in (70s and 80s) played a large part in the story and each chapter shared a name with a song from the era. It’s been two or three years since I read that book.

    The book you mentioned at the beginning though, that one sounds familiar. 🙂

  7. I think authors should use chapter titles if they want to. When people use them –at least in the instances beyond the three you referenced– they should be of significance to the story. I think, as a reader, they’re most helpful in re-reading, or finding information. I suppose in the age of ebooks, it might matter less. But, if you’re sitting there with a 500 page book, and you want to look at one scene again, it’s easier to pinpoint that scene with chapter titles. My daughter was reading Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, and I asked her what chapter she was on. She said it was, Grawp. Well, I knew instantly where she was in the book based on the chapter title.

    So, certainly, if the book is one that’s going to be re-read or thumbed through again, chapter titles are awesomely helpful.

  8. Enjoyed this post Cathy. I realize I don’t really pay attention to chapter titles either, but I believe, as you pointed out, that there are times it is perfectly acceptable and perhaps even necessary. Interesting subject!

  9. I rather miss the kinds of droll chapter titles many of the older novels had in bygone eras…such as “Chapter Thirty Seven – In Which Mr. Poop Discovers That Even the Queen Will Make Fun of His Name.”

  10. I write YA/fantasy where it seems more common to title chapters, but I don’t. I started to, but found it more annoying (time-consuming, stressful, etc.) to come up with titles than merited by their value. Per my editor’s suggestion, if the change is not clear I include a brief description of the new setting.
    Chapter Nine
    Present day just outside of Piper Falls…
    Where the description is in italics. I occasionally use them within chapters where related actions happen in different times/locations.

  11. It depends. (Which is my usual answer for everything, I know!) I’ll use them myself if I think it will make it easier for the reader to follow tricky time/place/character shifts, although it’s more fun for me to set the stage well enough in the writing so that identifiers are not needed. However, I’m not all that fond of chapter sub-titles that telegraph what’s going to happen in the scene. For example, I adored All the Light We Cannot See, but the chapter naming irked me. I would have preferred to discover for myself what was about to happen in each chapter.

  12. I see the worth of chapter titles in situations like the ones you’ve mentioned, Cathy, or in the situation RJ’s talking about. Otherwise, particularly for fiction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., work just fine for me, and that’s what I’ve done in my novels.

    The book I’m just wrapping up work on is nonfiction, so I’ve got titles for chapters and sections, all noted in the ToC and cross-referenced to a fare-thee-well. But I think most people just pick up a novel and read it straight through, and probably don’t pay much attention to chapter titles at all.

    As an aside, I still remember a chapter title from my tender youth. The final chapter in the first Little Women book was called, “Aunt March Settles the Question.” 🙂

    1. I hadn’t considered non-fiction, Lynne. That does seem like a place where chapter titles are needed, if not required. (RJ probably said that already.)

  13. The only book of my 13 in which I used chapter titles was my non-fiction, a biography. For some reason, giving titles to those episodes in the continuum seemed to make sense, although in my fiction, I never use chapter titles. I recently taught a workshop that included such formatting issues, and I told my students to do exactly what you did: pull a bunch of books from their own bookshelves and see how they were done. Then, find a style and stick with it. It’s all personal preference and what works best for the story.

  14. My title chapters have all grown organically out of the text. They are also particularly useful at the editing stage: when switching between chapters to make amendments they provide a quick pint of reference.

  15. I think chapter titles can be especially useful for ebooks. With a hard copy, one can thumb through the book; however, with an ebook, one has the beginning sample. Chapter titles can provide one more means of providing an introduction to the book.

  16. I name mine when I’m writing to help me keep track of what’s in that chapter, but tend to lose them afterwards.
    I think if it’s a kids book it can be fun to add a quirky tag line or, like you say, if it’s information you need to place you in the story. Otherwise Chapter 1 etc. is sufficient.

  17. Meh…I’m going to disagree with this one Cathy. I read everything on my Kindle and there is nothing worse than looking for a particular spot in the story and finding nothing but generic chapter headings that give no clue as to what’s /in/ the chapter.

    In a print book you can riffle through the pages until you find the right spot, but in ebooks that’s not possible at all. And yes, I know the ereader will automatically take you to the point of the current story at which you stopped reading. But that doesn’t help when you’ve already finished the story and need to refresh your memory for some reason.

    So I’m all for ‘real’ chapter headings, at least in ebooks.

  18. I prefer chapter numbers, especially if you want to keep a fast pace in the story. To me, it depends on how the story feels to you as your writing it. I have a draft of a sci-fi that just *needs* chapter headings. It wasn’t something I thought about beforehand and then made a decision.

    If chapter headings are out of style in favor of numbered chapters, then I wonder if the trend will turn retro some day to those quite delightful novels of yesteryear, with Chapter the First, Chapter the Second, etc.

  19. I always put chapter titles on my books. First, as has been mentioned above, for my own use when writing/editing. Second, because a table of contents is very useful in both ebooks and realbooks. No, not a list of “Ch 1, Ch 2, etc,” which is completely useless and drives me wild. I consider a T of C with intriguing chapter titles to be a great selling point, either to a store customer who picks up the book, or to a “what’s inside” reader who wants to know what the rest of the book is like.

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