Chapter titles

To date not one person has said anything about any of the chapter titles of my books. Not my non-fiction tomes, not my novels. There’s me sweating bullets to pick decent ones and not a soul notices. So I decided I’d just skip it from now on. Thus my current novel, the great Australian cricket mangosteen Elvis monkey-knife fighting feminist fairy novel is sans titled chapters.

This was an easy decision to make on account of I’m not very good at titles. Some writers have the title gift.1 I do not. Coming up with a decent title for the whole book just about kills me, I do not need the extra stress of to coming up with one for every bloody chapter. Gah!

But here’s the thing: Untitled chapters make for really tricky navigation. I wind up scrolling through the entire document looking for particular bits because I can’t think of a useful searchable phrase. I can’t remember what happened in “Chapter Six”, but I can remember what happened in a chapter called “Statistical Torpor”.

Yes, you guessed it. I have had to go through and name all the chapters. (So what I said in the first paragraph is now a lie.) Very annoying. Turns out chapter titles are not for readers, they’re for writers. They’re useful little signposts for us to navigate the unruly longness that is a novel. I will never neglect to name my chapters again. The more descriptier the better. Realising that made naming them easier. I forgot all about poetry—seeing as how no one’s going to read them other than me—and stuck to titles that would remind me of what happens in the chapter. Much easier.

Do any of you notice chapter titles? I don’t. I rarely even bother to read the epigrams epigraphs that writers have sweated blood and tears over (I know because I have sweated blood and tears over epigraphs too). My eyes glaze until I get to story. That’s not just me, right?

  1. Samuel R. Delany, for example. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand has to be one of my favourite titles of all time. []

29 comments

  1. lili on #

    don’t notice ‘em. don’t read ‘em. sorry, writers!

    my novel has no chapter titles, but it has little fragments of a fairy tale at the beginning of each chapter. so they’re like really long chapter titles. which probably makes it even less likely that people will read them…

  2. Emmaco on #

    Not only do I not read titles I often don’t even notice a chapter has finished and a new one started when I’m caught up in a story. And authors that do clever things with numbering of chapters (making the total number significant, missing a certain number etc) are particularly wasting their time on me. I appreciate that they did it when I read about it in an interview though. I’m not sure how you could work clever chapter titles into your interviews…

  3. marrije on #

    nope, don’t notice them. i don’t even read subheadings in magazine and newspaper articles, which often makes me miss things. hmn, there’s a message there for the professional me who advises clients to use subheadings in their webtexts…

  4. David Cake on #

    I like the Delany title too.
    Kate Orman once usefully titled a chapter of a book involving aztec gods “Its pronounced hweet-zi-la-poc-tlee” (or something roughly similar). Very considerate to the reader.

  5. Niall on #

    I do notice chapter titles, because I never expect chapters to have titles. Ken Macleod and Charles Stross do a nice line in geeky titles — IIRC there’s one chapter in Iron Sunrise titled “Someone Set Us Up The Bomb” …

  6. May on #

    more titles? nobody told me that!

    *pause*

    checking your books for chapter titles is a great way to procrastinate.

    but there is no way that me, who is also without the title gift (though i call it the title gene) will give my chapters titles.

  7. Maggie on #

    I read everything. Even dedications and acknowledgements.

  8. Little Willow on #

    I like chapter titles when appropriate, as yours are.

  9. josh on #

    I notice when a book has them because it’s so rare, but I tend to forget the title of the chapter I’m reading as soon as I’ve read it. Unless the title is something like “Horcruxes,” and the chapter is about Horcruxes. Hmm, I just spoiled my whole point by remembering the name of the chapter I’m reading right now. Jeez.

    I’m with you on titles. I hate trying to come up with titles for things. I also hate trying to name characters. Just brings me to a complete stop sometimes. But that one’s probably just me.

  10. Diana on #

    I love chapter titles. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love finding out the significance of them, I love it when they are those old fashioned 18th century kind that gives a rundwon of what happens in the chapter (like in KETURAH AND LORD DEATH), I love that my publisher allows me to keep them, and I was pleased as punch when i discovered, after being told that no one would notice my chapter titles, that one of them referenced in the nyo review of my first book.

  11. Niklas on #

    Why not go all the way?

    CHAPTER X
    The Whispering Pit
    –In which our heroine finds herself missing a friend, recovers an ancient heirloom, and regrets an old lie.–

    If the chapter before didn’t end on a cliffhanger, I think the chapter title can help whet the appetite a little. The book I have pretended to quote above doesn’t exist, but I’m sort of wondering now about that pit and why it whispers…

    Sometimes when I go to the book store or the library a good title will catch my eye and I’ll read a bit of the first page and see if it appeals to me. If it does, I might buy/borrow/read the book, but I don’t think I have ever chosen to read or not read a chapter because of its title.

  12. Ted Lemon on #

    You know what’s fun are the Victorian titles. Chapter Twenty Seven, in which our brave heroine finally realizes the extent of her betrayal, and learns how to tie a bowline.

  13. Christopher Barzak on #

    I’m like Maggie above, I read everything from front to back, acknowledgments, epigrams, dedications, chapter titles if the book has them, whatever is in there, I eat it up greedily. I like book, not just story. ;-)

  14. sara z on #

    I like and notice chapter titles. Maybe it goes back to my Winnie the Pooh days.

  15. Celia on #

    Not only do I never remember to read titles as I go (I’ll end up having to page back through the chapters about every 5 chapters or so to catch up), but I also *never* notice sub heads, even if they’re critical things like what the date/time is, or where they are. Though sometimes I catch on that I should be paying attention to them, and page back whenever I start getting confused by the fact that the story seems to have gone 20 years in the past and to madagascar. Because of it, though, I *don’t* use sub heads in my own stories, but rather work it into the story as i go. (“Gosh,” said Tim, “Madagascar sure is warm, today, December 4th, 1986. So, tell me about this secret of yours that will eventually lead to your downfall in the future.”)

  16. Mely on #

    I read chapter titles, dedications, acknowledgements, title pages, copyright pages, previous books by inserts, and the ads in back, for books old enough to have them (this seems to have gone out of style).

    What I don’t read, lately, is the cover copy and/or blurb pages.

  17. Chris McLaren on #

    I’m so down with the Delany titles. (My example is “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, though).

    And, I do notice chapter titles when they are there. Although I think that if the titles don’t add to the meaning of the chapter in some useful way, they probably shouldn’t be there at all. (Which isn’t to say they can’t exist in the manuscript for the writer’s convenience).

    Oh, and

    [enter annoying pedant mode]

    an epigram is “a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement”. What you meant was epigraph.

    [end annoying pedant mode]

  18. claire on #

    that’s so funny! i just went through exactly this thought process with the ya i’m writing. i never read chapter titles, and am annoyed when i find that there *are* chapter titles that i’ve missed. but i’ve been finding it so much easier to find stuff in the new nobble (i’m on the ninth chapter now) if i title them. big admission: i started titling them because it’s the convention.

  19. Penni on #

    Nup, don’t read ‘em. And I don’t name my own chapters because if I did it would take me probably two years longer to write a book. It’s hard enough for me to think of titles for the book. That’s why they’re all one worders. Imagine the brain strain if they were two words. I love long titles but I am banned from ever using one I think, every time I suggest one my editor looks kind of pale and strained and unhappy.
    I’m with Celia too, never notice dates and times and places. If a novel relies on this to convey the story then they’ve already lost me.
    One of my absolutely favourite titles is ‘Secret Observations on the Goat-Girl’ a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.

  20. Rebecca on #

    I don’t like reading chapter titles b/c sometimes they give away stuff. i abhor spoilers of any kind, and that includes chapter titles. i never ever read the chapter titles in harry potter, for example (or the book jacket, for that matter, but hp is the exception there). just the story for me. i’ve even heard that some people won’t read prologues.

  21. Chris S. on #

    I read chapter titles or headings *only* if they really stand out. Like: ‘Chapter 1: In Which I Don’t Eat A Rat’*. Or Pratchett’s epistlatory headings in ‘Going Postal’. Though Pratchett’s a tricky one: I must have read ten of his books before I realized he didn’t use chapters at all…

    *NAMELESS MAGERY, by Delia Marshall Turner

  22. sara z on #

    attn: pedant

    an epigram might also be “any witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed.” also possibly synonymous with “witticism, quip, bon mot.” I wouldn’t put it past Justine to be able to do all of that in a chapter title.

  23. Katie on #

    I do really like epigraphs.

    Generally the chapter titles are momentary for me.

    u*n*l*e*s*s they d*o* something.

    For example, I love the chapter titles in Varley’s Millenium because they are each titles of Heinlein short stories and I ponder what their signifiance is.

  24. Diana on #

    Scott’s chapter titles in the last days were fabu.

    i’m doing the modified victorians in the wip.

    In general, I’m of the “i wouldn’t have it in there if I didn’t expect you to read it” school of thought when it comes to the text of my book. so when people tell me they skip narrative and just read dialogue, or vice versa, or don’t reqad footnotes, or don’t read parentheticals, or don’t read chapter titles, it’s like, well, no wonder you missed stuff!

  25. shelly rae on #

    I read ‘em. Chapter titles, dedications, endnotes, jacket sleeves, everything. But then I am an obsessive reader. I read cereal boxes, newspapers, and the tags on my pillow. I rather like chapter titles though, especially yours.
    Anon

  26. sarrin on #

    Don’t give up–chapter titles are always Teh Fab. I read books cover to cover–every little thing in there passes before my eyes.

  27. shana on #

    like emmaco, i rarely even notice when a chapter has ended and a new chapter starts, let alone what the chapter title might be.

    it makes my sister nuts, when i’m reading aloud to her and don’t read the chapter title. she’s good enough at telling when i’ve skipped right past it without noticing, even when i’m reading to her over the phone.

  28. gabrielle on #

    i read everything too, acknowledgements, dedications, “about the author” texts, i even check on the copyrights to know when the book was published (unless i’ve been waiting for the book for a really long time, in wich case i won’t have to check the copyright to know), and i read chapter titles too, except when i’m too caught up in the story and can’t wait to continue to read…

  29. ben on #

    i write each chapter in it’sown word file so my “chapter titles” are the file names. they are short and descriptive but never intended to be part of the book. only for navigation.

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