Why You Should (and Shouldn’t) Use Chapter Titles in Your Books

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Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapters? That’s messier.

The case against chapter titles…

Most fiction books I’ve read don’t use chapter titles. They use numbers. More specifically, writers generally put those numbers on the page as digits (e.g., 29), rather than writing out the words (e.g., twenty-nine). But every writer is a little individual about it.

Some readers like that chapter titles can give a sneak peek at what’s ahead in the next section of the book. But personally, I find that chapter titles usually give away too much, which ruins my anticipation. If an author only uses the chapter number, then I have clear start-stop points in the book, but the author hasn’t given anything away, and I still have a better sense of mystery and excitement.

From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. And it can become hard to know where to draw the line with section labels. Paragraphs or pages, for example, are small sections, too, but you don’t title those. You just assume the reader will flow from one to the next and use the line break / indenting to understand your organization. So in this sense, I see chapter numbers as much simpler and less invasive.

…and the case in favor

But chapter titles have their benefits. They force you, as a writer, to have a clear sense of what the content in that section does or is about. If you outline before you write, then you can stay better focused so you don’t get into the weeds too much. You know exactly what purpose the text has for the reader. And if you place titles after drafting, then it still can help you see what to put in or cut. There’s also a fantastic creative challenge that can improve your writing overall. Instead of one title to come up with, you could have dozens. Many readers appreciate all this extra flavor and effort.

Chapter titles also can create a sense of unity through a book. Some readers need to see or how the chapters are related, because those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. And if you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with or that provides a good curiosity gap, then you can create some empathy to connect better and create intrigue without giving too much away. It’s possible to set the mood right away so that your reader more easily can settle in, imagine the world or scene, and feel invested.

In the end, the reader is most important

Ultimately, chapter titles are always forward-oriented. So if you’re going to use them, they need to give clear clues about the journey the reader is going to take, and they need to do it in a way that’s not distracting. If you don’t want to use them, though, then you don’t have to. There are all kinds of other writing strategies and techniques you can use to create anticipation (e.g., a classic cliffhanger chapter ending), help one section flow to the next, or offer clues. But in either case, think about your reader, both in terms of what they expect–some genres use chapter titles more often than others, for example–and what they personally are going to need. Create a truly immersive experience, and make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.

What’s in Your Punctuation? A Lot, Apparently

Part of basic elementary school training is learning the basics of punctuation–a comma does this, a period does that. And over time, we get better at using those basics consistently so that our writing is more understandable and has better flow.

But how much of punctuation relates to voice, that mysterious thing that agents, publishers and readers talk about with such simultaneous reverence and excitement?

That’s the question Lucas Reilly explored in a recent article for Mental Floss. Reilly reported how people have used stylometric analysis, which is the process of using quirks within writing samples to identify who wrote the text, for decades. But now, a team led by Alexandra Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, applied the concept to genres and the evolution of author style over time. Could you, for example, tell a romance novel from a science fiction one, based just on the punctuation in it?

The researchers discovered that this is totally possible. They created formulas that could pinpoint authors with 72 percent accuracy, and genre at 65 percent. Not perfect, but still pretty impressive.

The researchers also noted that we’re using commas and semicolons less than we used to, and that the use of periods and quotation marks and periods has gone up. This shift might reflect the massive technological shift we’re going through. As people struggle to focus online, the emphasis is on concise writing, and people throw in plenty of quotes to try to include the authority that’s going to give their piece the credibility necessary to be heard in the noise of the Internet. (More cynically, this also might be a reflection that we are struggling to rephrase concepts in our own words.) The idea that the tools available to us might sway us to adopt writing tendencies we otherwise might not have matters. The tools we select are always within our control, but we must be aware of their influence to make more conscious choices about what to utilize.

But lets go back to those stats for a second. Each genre arguably has its own “feel”. This arguably is part of what endears readers to one type of book compared to another, and punctuation clearly is playing a huge role in providing that feeling. It’s a lot like music–hip hop doesn’t feel like classical, classical doesn’t feel like jazz. And within those, composers communicate within a set of rules in their own way–Brahms doesn’t sound like Mozart, yet they’re both “classical”. We cannot dismantle that completely, at least not all at once, because it would feel “off” to the reader who has a set of expectations about what the genre needs to be or have.

But what if we messed around with that? What if we broke away, committed more to our own style of punctuation and didn’t conform so much to the genre? The potential is there to create something entirely fresh–you know, that characteristic that agents and publishers say they are constantly looking for in manuscripts. What if, for example, a Victorian romance novel had the pointed brevity of Hemingway but maintained all the classic plot “essentials”? Wouldn’t that make it marvelously easier for writers to cross genres and not get unnecessarily labeled as one type of writer or another, to explore all kinds of storytelling instead of allowing themselves to get stuffed in a box?

And this all raises another question. Writers always influence other writers to some degree. As you might see in my posts, for instance, I use longer structures, and I’m not afraid of commas. It’s a testimony to the many hours I spent with Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville and a whole gaggle of others. So what if we’re holding ourselves back by immersing ourselves in a preferred category? What if we’ve read so much science fiction or whatever else that the sound and rhythm of it is too ingrained and we cannot truly speak as ourselves?

So this brings to the fore the need for writers to read a lot, and read everything. We need to understand that there is more than one sound, more than one cadence, more than one way to break ideas apart or string them together. And while all of us have to be concerned with “readability” for the audience, there is no “right” cadence, sound or method. We stay aware of that the more we expose ourselves to variety.

It’s a lot like Paul Maclean (Brad Pitt) finding his own way with his fishing rod in A River Runs Through It. Find your pace. Find your flow. It’s your own mark and secret byline, if you let it be.