Chapter Titles in Your Books: Genius or Disaster?
Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapter titles? 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 rather than words. 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. 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. At the same time, the author hasn’t let any cats out of the bag too early, and so I have a good sense of mystery and excitement.
From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. 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
Chapter titles 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 throughout a book. Some readers need to see how the chapters are related. Those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. If you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with, then you also can create some empathy to connect better. If the chapter titles are done exceptionally well, 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, too.
In your chapter titles decision, the reader is the 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. Make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.