On chapter titles in fiction

thurschilbadgejpgI love a good chapter title in a book. I really admire writers who manage to come up with a title that summarises the chapter, gives the reader a sense of what’s to come, but without being spoilery. I love chapter titles so much I always thought I’d use them—but when I stopped, partway through drafting Isla’s Inheritance, and thought about it, the idea of crafting the perfect chapter titles seemed as hard as crafting the perfect beginning. I seized up with panic, and decided I’d worry about it later. (That, by the way, is a great way to deal with writer’s block of any sort. Write around the problem and fix it later.)

Then I never actually got around to doing it.

My love of chapter titles started with J.R.R. Tolkien. I was given an illustrated, anniversary edition of The Hobbit when I was in late primary school. I loved that book. I’d alternate between reading about Bilbo’s adventures and staring at the illustrations of Smaug for hours. (As an aside, no one told me about the rest of Tolkien’s books till years later. I remember experiencing that wonder for the first time, the joy of discovering there are more books in a series that I never knew about. It took me a while to warm to Frodo, but he got me in the end.)

A conversation on Twitter about chapter titles the other day got me to thinking, though: do they actually make much difference to my experience as a reader? I looked at a random selection of fantasy and urban fantasy novels from my bookshelves, and the results surprised me. Because if you’d asked me who used chapter titles, I would have said fantasy writers do; urban fantasy writers don’t. I’ve read a lot of both, and that was my impression. But the facts only sort of bear that out—it’s a trend rather than a hard fact.

Untitled-1On the fantasy (and light sci-fi) side of the shelf, Anne McCaffrey did an assortment of things with her titles. In Dragonflight, the first in the Pern series, she actually used poems instead of chapter titles (the poems written by the harpers in the book). This was like chapter headings on steroids, because if you’ve read the book you’ll know the main character actually has to solve a riddle in one of those songs to save the day. And they foreshadowed the storyline as well. Wow. (In others of her books, though, she used traditional chapter numbers.)

David Eddings uses numbers with some titles for parts. Raymond E. Feist, Kate Forsyth and Jay Kristoff use chapter titles. Mercedes Lackey uses numbers (sometimes with titles to say whose perspective it is, much like George R.R. Martin). Terry Pratchett doesn’t even use chapters!

On the urban fantasy side, Suzanne Collins had part titles. Cassandra Clare uses chapter names. Charles De Lint and Veronica Roth use numbers.

I think the most telling thing for me is how little impression some of the titles made on me. I only read The Hunger Games and City of Bones recently, but the fact there were titles in there didn’t even register—probably because they were both such compelling stories that I was far more interested in continuing on than dwelling on the title and what it might mean. If I was at the point where I’d re-read them lovingly many times, the way I have The Hobbit and Dragonflight, perhaps they would have sunk in as I stopped to marvel.

All of which brings me to my point: what are your feelings on chapter titles in fiction (especially genre fiction)? Do you think they add to your reading experience, detract from it, or make no real difference either way? Do you even notice them?

(I need to caveat this post with the statement that I didn’t look at every book on my shelf by the named authors, just a handful. So maybe all of them do both, and it was just coincidence that the ones I picked up were of a certain style.)

Click here to see this week’s other Thursday’s Children blog posts.

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15 Comments on “On chapter titles in fiction”

  1. Stacey Nash says:

    Interesting post Cass. I’ve pondered this same topic just this week as I’m editing. When I wrote my sci-fi adventure, Forget Me Not, I used part titles and poems as well as chapter titles. Now that it is nearing publication, I need to decide whether to keep them. The part titles are staying, there’s no question there. But the chapter titles…I’m still not sure.

    What did you end up doing with Ilsa’s Inheritance?

  2. Nice post, Cass. I’m the same as you; I always thought I’d use chapter titles, but when the time came it all got too hard.

  3. Alice Leiper says:

    When I’m writing, I tend not to give chapters titles; sometimes I don’t use chapters at all. I don’t see a need for them, and anyway I have enough trouble coming up with a book title.

    I think I’ve seen more chapter titles in books aimed at younger readers, or at least, I’ve not seen many recently in fantasy. My favourite book from my childhood, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, had great chapter titles that started with “In which” and did say something that happens in the chapter, without giving anything important away. Also there were illustrations, which I loved. My favourite is the one of Howl covered in slime.

    So chapter titles, if done well, can really add something special to a book, but I think it needs to be handled very carefully and reflect the tone of the book.

    • I know what you mean about book titles. My second manuscript still doesn’t have a name. I call it “Book Two”. I know, right? I’m a creative genius! :p

      I’ve never written without chapters before. I think it can work so long as there are logical breaks in the story, scene breaks where the reader can pause if they need to.

  4. Mia Celeste says:

    It’s funny that you’re thinking about chapter titles because I just recently decided not to do the standard numbers in my current wip. Thanks for giving me some good examples.

    http://www.miaceleste.com/?p=393

  5. I have to admit, if I’m really into the story I don’t pay attention. I just want to keep reading. Great post!

  6. Laura Oliva says:

    So interesting that you’ve thought about this too!

    Chapter titles have a really old-school feel to them that I just love. I started writing an adventure novella back in high school, and I gave it chapter titles. Just felt right. Never ended up doing anything with it, but I might revisit the idea someday…

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this again!

  7. Veronica says:

    I LOVE chapter titles. I can’t stop using them. It’s actually kind of a problem….

  8. missmkperez says:

    Thanks for joining us! It’s funny, I used to be completely against chapter titles because I thought it was a bit too much stage direction but then I worked on a manuscript where the soundtrack was very important and so I ended up using the song titles for my chapter titles. Since then, I find it almost impossible not to use them!


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