Chapter Titles

Chapters Edited: 3
Scenes Edited: 9
Words Murdered: 1,017 (about 10%)

People hunting MC: 4 (that he knows of)
Times MC nearly dies: 2
Airships destroyed: 1

I have no intention of telling anybody how to do chapter titles. The opposite, actually. What do you like in your chapter titles? If you're writing, how do you do them?

I've seen them done a thousand ways. Short title. Long title. Chapters titled with the name of the POV character. Titles by date or location. Straightforward titles. Obscure titles. No titles (numbers only). No titles (not even numbers). No chapters at all.

Personally, I like numbers and relatively straightforward titles. It makes it easier to flip back and find some piece of information on page 32 that is suddenly relevant on page 337. It also helps me remember the plot of the book better. But that's just my preference. I'm not going to hate a book because the chapters are titled by POV characters (George Martin) or because there are no chapters at all (Terry Pratchett).

When I write, I tend to title chapters by my preference too (numbered, straightforward). In fact, I was flipping through the books on my shelf, and I realized I have been completely influenced by Orson Scott Card in my chapter titles. In every book of his I have, the chapters are numbered with short, often one-word titles. Likewise, all my chapters:
  • are numbered.
  • have short, descriptive titles.
  • sometimes, but not always, have titles with more than one meaning.
That last one makes naming chapters fun for me. I love throwing out chapter titles that get the reader excited about reading the chapter, but also misdirect a bit. Like I'll have a chapter titled "Betrayal", and the reader goes (hopefully), "Ooh, plot twist!" And maybe there is an important betrayal that occurs in the chapter, but it's not the one the reader expected when they read the title.

You know, stuff like that. I actually don't know if Card ever does the double meaning thing, and I don't know if readers even notice things like that (I probably wouldn't), but I do it anyway. It's fun.

And if an agent or editor ever says to me, "These chapter titles are dumb. They all need to go," I'll say, "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I thought so too, sir. Would you like some more coffee?"


Natalie Whipple said...

It depends on the book for me. Ninjas has chapter titles, but most of my other works just have numbers. I'm currently adding them to Void as I revise and they're working. Not working so much for Hammered.

I think they add a certain personality to the piece, and some books just don't need/don't have room for that. Ninjas definitely does. Some of my others I feel like it would just be distracting.

At least they are easily removed, like you said. And I'm not attached to them at all.

Anonymous said...

I like numbers only.

I don't mind a little heading or some bit of fluff up there at the top. But I like keeping track of where I am, and it's easier to have that sense when I see "17" than when I see "And Then More Shit Happens".

Adam Heine said...

Natalie: That's a good point. And I can totally see how a book titled "Relax, I'm a Ninja" could benefit from well-titled chapters.

Nixy: See? Everyone's different. I like numbers better than nothing, but without a title, I'll forget what happened in which number :-)

Anonymous said...

I think a great aspect of writing chapter titles, as the writer, is to limit your capacity in thinking. Often times I'll become bogged in the passive voice, as to define every single indefinite detail, and I lose track of where I'm headed and soon enough the chapter, whatever chapter it may be, becomes convoluted and it loses power and thus becomes a weak chapter. The titles, as I remember them from Candide, Les Miserables and The Scarlett Letter are more than just vignettes of the chapters - of course they're that - I've come to know the authors even more through these little clips. Writers should try to write with chapter titles, I think, if only to set up a query and resolute end for the given chapter. I know from my titles, chapters I feel stand on their own, what I must accomplish and how much restriction I have in the active voice. The passive voice, something I have terrible trouble with sometimes, is only secondary but it's very much what makes each chapter so wonderful.

Jeffrey said...

I just discovered the Thomas Merton memoir, The Seven Story Mountain. The beginning is quite striking, but I think the first chapter title helped me think it was going to be something special -- Prisoner's Base.

Matthew MacNish said...

2009? This post shows up on your recently popular links, so I had to drop by.

I tend to agree, though the way I handle chapters is different for every story.