Coming up with Chapter Titles

There is no wrong way to do chapters and chapter titles. Short titles. Long titles. Chapters titled with the name of the POV character. Excerpts of the chapter used as titles. Titles by date or location. Straightforward titles. Obscure titles. Numbers only. No titles (not even numbers). No chapters at all.

All of it has been done, and all of it can work. That makes everything I say here my opinion only. Ignore it as you will.

Think about what chapter titles are good for. Honestly, I think most readers ignore them, especially when so many books have only numbers to designate the chapters. For that reason, if you're not sure what to do, numbering the chapters is a good, safe default.

As both writer and reader, I use chapter titles as markers, to remember what happens and where (in the book) it happens. I don't always flip back for information, but when I do, it's nice to have those markers there. So I think a good chapter title is ACCURATE and MEMORABLE.

ACCURATE means the title makes sense after the reader has read the chapter. A symbolic title like "Red Cats" (for a chapter in which there are no red cats, nor does any character compare plot events to red cats--which is to say, the connection is just an exercise for the reader) might be very clever on a re-read, but serves no other purpose.

MEMORABLE means the title makes it easy to remember what happened in that chapter later. "Vague Omens" might not be a good chapter title, unless the omens were memorable by themselves.

But chapters can serve one more purpose: to make the reader want to know more. I don't know about you, but when I finish a chapter, I often read the title of the next one, even if I plan to put the book down, and sometimes, that title convinces me to keep going. A hint of what's to come, naming an event or mystery the reader has been looking forward to, an implication that something terrible is about to happen...all of these can make good chapter titles.

But as I said, that's just my opinion, and there is no wrong way to do it. How do you title your chapters?

11 comments:

Wrytersblock said...

In the past I've used chapter titles that were either humorous, mildly-ironic, or fore-shadowed the action in the chapter. Mostly, now I just number the chapter and go on.

Recently, I read a great book with numbered chapters, and under each was short, punchy plot-point descriptions of the scenes in the chapter. I didn't like this, I felt like it gave away too much of the plot.

Adam Heine said...

@Wrytersblock: Yeah, there's a fine line between enticing the reader with what happens next and just plain telling them. I agree: avoid the latter.

Bane of Anubis said...

Chapter 1: Awesome stuff happens
Chapter 2: Awesomer stuff happens
Chapter 3: More Awesomer stuff happens
Chapter 4: Awesomest stuff starts to happen
Chapter 5: Pure Awesomeness of Awesome
Chapter 6: Dammit, what now?

Yes, I stick to numbers for the most part, though for one story I used quotes for each chapter... that took a long time.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I used chapter titles for my first two books and then decided that they just aren't my thing. I'd rather have a chapter ending that propels the reader to the next chapter. Maybe it's because I don't read chapter titles myself. Except for Rick Riordan's chapter titles, which are entertaining even if you never read the book. #I'mnotthatgoood

Joey Malone said...

I like to see good chapter titles that make me want to keep reading. There have been books in the past that I couldn't put down because of the chapter titles. And those are the types of titles I strive to put in my writings.

Nick said...

I'm not a skip-aheader, and I don't like to watch movie previews because they always give away most of the plot. I prefer to be utterly surprised.

I pretty much prefer just a chapter number in a book, unless all it's giving away is what happens on the first page of the chapter. I don't like waiting the whole chapter for the title to happen, and when the pattern is that the title doesn't happen, I don't like to know that I get to read, expect the title to happen, but really expect it to not, since I know I'm being tricked.

I'd rather not play the guessing game because I just want to read.

Adam Heine said...

I love Bane's titles :-D

@Nick: That's definitely a good point, and a good example of why numbers are just safer.

Matt Heppe said...

In Eternal Knight I went for ye olde 1,2,3,4,5...

Pretty exciting.

I do like it when the chapter number is accompanied with a character name or a location. It helps me get into the right frame of mind for the next chapter.

Anonymous said...

I use chapter titles similarly. You have the chapter number and a few words or a short phrase as to what the next is about. Naturally, it shouldn't be something too obvious or revealing.

I think it should be like that regardless if you're a writer or a reader, but I agree with Adam. It's usually all-good which ever way one chooses.

Kayla Rain said...

I use chapter titles in my own writing, just because in all my favorite books, they have titles that were quite clever and witty. I don't know, to me it just seems like the author put a lot of time and effort into creating the perfect title. :)

Becky A said...

First off, I'd like to say that it bugs me when there's no chapter title, unless it's a novel by Michael Scott. A brilliant mind, he is.

Now,
My chapter titles (from my only "published" story, If Today Was Your Last Day: Kingdom Come, a HP fanfiction) are things like "5,356 Kilometeres Away" and "Murdered". But -at least I don't think- they don't realy sum up the chapters in the way one would expect.
Just a random question, though: what does a chapter titled "Abused Plans" make you think of?