While writing my current manuscript, I came across a problem: Should I use chapter titles or simply number them? A quick search through my bookshelf revealed that many of my books were simply numbered. I personally liked chapter titles, but if so many books excluded them, were chapter titles really worth the extra effort? Today, we’ll explore the pros and cons of chapter titles. I’ll tell you what I’ve decided for my manuscript, and you can come to your own conclusion.
- Help you remember your place
When I put a book down, it’s typically in between chapters. If the book has number instead of chapter titles, there’s no way I’ll remember the chapter number in a few hours. Chapter titles are book marks themselves and many times easier to remember, which make them helpful for both the writer and the reader.
- Act as a hook for the next chapter
Most readers put a book down in between chapters. Every time a reader puts your book down, there’s a chance that they’ll never pick it back up again, so it’s important that these in-between places are as intriguing as possible. The fewer times they put your book down, the fewer opportunities they have to put it down forever.
- Make a point resonate
On some of my fan fictions, my chapter title would be related to the last line of the chapter, since the chapter title is the first thing they read of the chapter and the last line is the last. Sometimes, this worked as a hook, but other times, it was to make a point stick. Try reflecting some parts of the last line in your chapter title and see what effect it has.
- Set up opportunities for irony
A chapter title is an opportunity to set up expectations, and your goal as an author should be to exceed those expectations. That’s not to say you should have lame chapter titles, but just remember that it’s a wonderful opportunity to twist the situation into something ironic.
- Set up opportunities for symbolism
If your story has a particular theme, chapter titles are a great opportunity to express that. For example, let’s say for some reason your theme is centered around flowers. Each chapter could have a flower name incorporated, as well as the flower meaning, if you wanted to add an extra level of complexity.
Or maybe they could have a double-meaning. Perhaps this beautiful woman has made an entrance in the hero’s life, and she goes by the name Rose, but the readers discover later on that she isn’t who she says she is. The chapter title where she appears could be called: A Rose By Any Other Name.
- Can also:
Set tone or reveal POV
- Difficult to brainstorm
Many writers find that it’s not worth the extra effort to come up with chapter titles, since some readers skip chapter titles all together. If finding a name for your entire book is hard, imagine how much harder it’d be to come up with dozens of titles.
- Can be spoilers
A sloppy chapter title can ruin the reader’s excitement if they can already tell what the chapter’s about. Some readers will even put the book down if they think the chapter will be boring or about something they don’t like.
- Can be distracting
Some chapter titles do nothing for the story but ruin its flow. Movies black out before moving onto the next scene, and readers like to see books flow just as smoothly. Some intentionally avoid reading the chapter title, since it prevents them from simply enjoying the book.
So, are chapter titles intriguing or superfluous? Do they help or hinder? Here’s my verdict: Chapter titles are invaluable tools—when they add to the story. Many of the readers who say they prefer numbered chapters, also say they like chapter titles when they’re done well. Chapter titles aren’t bad or boring or distracting per se. Sloppy chapter titles are. Of course, the only way to get better at something is to examine how it’s done and practice. Try to find a few books with intriguing chapter titles and mimic what the author does. If you decide to title your chapters, ask for opinions.
As a reader, do you prefer chapter titles? What about as a writer? How do chapter titles add or detract from your reading?