I ran across this question recently in a Facebook group, and noted there was a lot of opinion on it. Some authors are vehemently opposed to using chapter titles, while others adore them. So, what’s best?
Well, the simplest answer is that it’s entirely up to the author. However, chapter titles do tend to be more prevalent in certain genres, so if that’s one you write in, you may want to adopt them.
First, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page. A chapter title is simply a word or phrase that isn’t a number to demark your new chapter. Usually it’s descriptive, and always it’s optional. Some people consider including names to denote changing point of view as a chapter title. However, for the purposes of this article, we’re not going to include them. Why? Because, POV changes, much like the number, are not optional. If you’ve got an alternating POV, the reader needs to know who’s speaking. Why are chapter numbers mandatory? Well, imagine if the reader last read chapter 22, and their bookmark falls out (or they accidentally advance the progress bar on their eReader), they need to be able to go back to chapter 22 and look for their place. This is functional information.
Chapter titles tend to be descriptive of the chapter, foreshadowing what is to come. For example, the first chapter title in my book Life First is “Deception”. A later chapter title is “Murphy’s Law on Steroids”. Chapter titles can be funny. A lot of young adult books do this. I picked up my daughter’s copy of Percy Jackson: The Titan’s Curse, and found the first chapter title is “My Rescue Operation Goes Very Wrong”. That is descriptive and adds a note of humor. Another chapter title in the book is “I learn how to grow zombies”.
For readers who enjoy the chapter titles, it’s a great way to get a peek at what’s ahead.
Gordon Long mentioned that chapter titles enhance the salability of your book and I would tend to agree with him. When people check out the table of contents, it’s great to see something that gives a descriptive feel of the book. As a reader, I like chapter titles to help me figure out where something I read before was. For example, if a particular event happened that’s referenced later, I’ll tend to flip to the list of chapter titles, and based on the chapter title, I can figure out where things are. When I was reading my daughter the last Harry Potter book, we came upon the chapter titled, “The Prince’s Tale”, and I turned to her and said, “This is my favorite chapter.” I knew instantly what the chapter was about, having read the book previously. And even had I not read it previously, the chapter title explains clearly what it’s about.
So, how do you create a great chapter title? Well, ideally, they’d all be fabulous and fun and make the reader think, “I want to know what happens.” The chapter titles can reference things only readers of previous books would know (as in “The Prince’s Tale” example). As authors, we can try to make every chapter title awesome, but sometimes, it’s just good. For people who want to use chapter titles, I recommend writing a draft chapter title when you start writing the chapter in the book. Writing it at the time you write the chapter serves two purposes. One, it means it’s done now, and you don’t have to do it all at the end. But two, it can help you focus as you write. Your chapter needs to be about that. If you realize your chapter’s not about that, you can change the chapter title, or move it to a different chapter, retitling the current one.
If you write short chapters like James Patterson (some of his books have upwards of 100 chapters), and the thought of titling so many chapters feels daunting, you can consider breaking the book into sections, and titling each section (of 10 chapters, perhaps) with one theme. But those chapters should stay on that theme. Or, if you have 70+ chapters, you may want to scrap titles altogether.
I mentioned earlier that certain genres are better known for chapter titles. Both young adult and fantasy novels tend to see more chapter titles than other genres. However, any genre can use them. The author just has to like doing them, or think they add to the aesthetic. If you do decide to do them, look at chapter titles from other books in your genre. See what kind of vibe they give and go for that.
As I mentioned earlier, chapter titles can help readers anticipate what’s coming in a chapter. They can also be used as a marketing tool. JK Rowling provided chapter titles in advance of the release of the later Harry Potter books. Obviously, Potter had ravenous fans seeking any details, as the book series was already massively successful. But even with just a few fans, the chapter titles can be used to pique reader interest, especially if they’re great chapter titles.
So, that’s the skinny on chapter titles. I hope that helps.
11 thoughts on “Should Authors Use Chapter Titles?”
Nice article, authors fail to realize that the Table of Contents is one of their greatest marketing tools on amazon. Because of all the fake reviews, more and more readers are using the “Look Inside” on amazon to discover what is really inside. The Look Inside shows 10 to 15 pages of which the first 4 or 5 pages are stuffed with front matter before the Table of Contents of 2 to 4 pages long. When no chapter titles are used all you get is a boring list of the words Chapter # over and over again and very a few pages of intro, or prelude, or 1st chapter at best. Think of it this way, Chapter Titles are an import advertising tool to for the reader to be convinced to purchase your book and stand out from everyone else. I hope this helps someone increase their sales. JB
That’s a great point, JB. Chapter titles can be an important selling factor for your books.
One reader told me she wasn’t going to read my first memoir until she peeped inside and saw I had headed the chapters where the action took place – Dublin, Benghazi, London, Nairobi, Johannesburg etc – then she wanted to read it.
That’s great, Lucinda! I love it when readers chime in and talk about their reasons for buying. Sounds like chapter titles are a great way to sway readers, especially if something else about your book confused them. Sometimes readers will like the cover, but not be completely swayed by the blurb, so having something to serve as a tiebreaker in your favor is wonderful.
Thanks, RJ. It’s something I’ve been struggling with. “I’ve done it both ways and think, for myself (I write Fantasy) that they are helpful.
Well, the tough part about chapter titles is they can be a struggle. Some people like to write them at the outset to get themselves excited about the chapter they’re going to write.
Good [Wednesday] morning:
Well, you’re right. It’s entirely up to the author.
I included them in my first published novel and they kind of arrived there by accident; they weren’t planned, in other words.
In my second novel my chapter headings were days of the week – e.g., Monday, July 22, 1968, and so on.
For novel No 3, which I’m writing, I haven’t decided.
Chapter titles are only helpful if the author makes the effort. While functional chapter titles are helpful (functional, if you will 🙂 ), I’m not sure how much they tell the reader about the novel.
I broke one of my books into sections by day (Monday-Saturday) as the book took place over 6 days. Within each section, I had chapters, but not descriptive titles (it was alternating first person, so the chapter titles were functional in identifying the character).
I think readers looking at the TOC to help influence buying decisions, will be more swayed by titles that say something about the characters/book than by functional chapter titles. However, all titles offer the reader some information that could sway them. Simply offering place names was a real help to Lucinda’s reader, who thought multiple countries was the adventure she was looking for.
Great post, RJ. I’m one of those people who are adamant that ebooks must have chapter titles. I have an older Kindle Fire, and every so often, something will happen or its battery will start to go flat and bingo, my position in the story has suddenly zoomed ahead by heaven knows how many chapters. There is nothing more frustrating than having to sample each chapter number until I finally end up back where I was in the story. At least with chapter titles that have some kind of meaning, I can narrow down the search and save myself time and stress.
Chapter titles in print books are less critical, imho, as they tend to ‘fall open’ at the right spot by themselves.
I write sci-fi and provide chapter titles for both print and ebook versions because I like them as a reader.
Another thought came to me as I was reading your post: mnemonics. If people are using the chapter number or title to remember where they read something, words that relate to the chapter are a much better hint to the memory.
I often title the chapters descriptively while I’m writing, because this helps me keep things organized. Then I change them – if necessary – for publication. A descriptive title can be too prosaic or can give too much away. I certainly agree with your comment above. You do have to work at them. But I believe the results are worth it.
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