Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writers are more than familiar with the hundreds of little choices that give a story its unique voice and atmosphere – the words unsaid, the barely perceptible inflections of phrase, the carefully thought out punctuation. But even those fluent in all these secret languages often miss one of the first indicators of a story’s voice, something which readers frequently use to decide whether or not a book is for them: the chapter headings.
Whether you go with simple numerals or an individual title for each chapter, chapter headings often go overlooked because they exist ‘outside’ of the story. They’re first and foremost a tool, an affectation used to control the pace and progression of a story. In fact, many authors write fantastic works that don’t use chapters at all, let alone chapter headings, so how can they be so important?
The browsing reader
The answer is that every type of chapter heading makes a bold statement about the nature of the story, and that includes occasions where headings aren’t used at all. In this way, chapter headings are like smiles. There are lots of ways to smile at someone, but not smiling at all sends its own message.
Chapter headings hold such power because they’re easy to browse. When a reader is flicking through your book, chapter headings jump out as content which a) is easy to browse and b) can tell them about the story.
While your title and blurb tell the reader a lot, everyone knows they’re designed for presentation. Chapter headings are different – they’re linked to the story, and no author would choose chapter headings that didn’t suit their work just to court a potential reader. Even the first paragraph of your story, prime deciding territory for those wondering if they should buy, has been created with the express intent of hooking a reader.
So, if chapter headings are so important to readers’ understanding of your book, what are they actually saying?
Small, medium and large
The maths of chapter headings can be easily understood, and works on a scale:
Chapters used, but no headings
Embellished numeral (1., -1-)
Word with numeral (Chapter 1)
Word with word (Chapter one)
Chapter with title (Chapter one: The Killer)
Tasters / Teasers (Chapter one, in which our hero…)
The examples above cover most of your options in terms of chapter headings, with a few hybrids left out. While the latter examples have an obvious impact on how a story is perceived – a thrilling chapter title can directly intrigue a reader – it’s actually the amount of information given that is the initial indicator of a book’s tone.
Quantity not quality
For most books, the default chapter heading is the numeral. This fulfills all the basic functions of the chapter heading, allowing the indication of a chapter without giving much else away. In fact, it’s due to the pure functionality of the numeral that other choices have such definite meanings.
Choosing to do more than simply provide a numeral is generally a sign, conscious or not, that you think more is warranted. As the length of a chapter heading increases, so does the sense of a writer’s regard for the content of a chapter. In the same way that royalty is greeted by trumpets, a fancy chapter heading suggests that what follows must be special.
Return of the ego
It’s at this point that we come up against the eternal enemy of the author: the ego. Since writers tend to use longer chapter headings only when they feel justified, this choice tells the reader what the writer thinks of their own work – effectively boasting ‘this section of writing deserves this title.’ A longer chapter heading is therefore a great indicator of a book’s overall tone, to the extent that it even ties into genre.
The longest chapter headings can usually be found in children’s books, comic works and fantasy stories. The reason that these seemingly disparate genres follow this pattern is that they are all trying to create the same impression – a sense of grandeur.
– CHAPTER NINE –
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
For comic works, this is often tongue in cheek, but the base intention is still there. Below is the chapter heading for Terry Pratchett’s comic-fantasy Going Postal. Part fantasy, part pastiche, Pratchett embraces the taster, a form of chapter headings that most readers will associate with Victorian works. Tasters are used to present a chapter’s most interesting moments, a hangover from when fiction was more frequently encountered in a serial format:
In which our Hero experiences Hope, the Greatest Gift – The Bacon Sandwich of Regret– Sombre Reflections on Capital Punishment from the Hangman – Famous Last Words – Our Hero Dies – Angels, conversations about – Inadvisability of Misplaced Offers regarding Broomsticks – An Unexpected Ride – A World Free of Honest Men – A Man on the Hop – There is Always a Choice
– Terry Pratchett, Going Postal
Here Pratchett has his cake and eats it, presenting an amusingly elongated chapter heading that comically exaggerates the story’s self-regard while still exciting the reader for what’s to come.
A less self-effacing fantasy work might use a chapter number and title, sincerely holding up each chapter as an episode worthy of individual identity.
THE DEPARTURE OF BOROMIR
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
This kind of heading can be used to great effect when the reader wants grandeur, but as with any attempt at self-characterization it can be incredibly damaging when proven false.
In genres such as crime, thriller and, most of all, memoir, the assumed grandeur of a long chapter heading is more likely to invite reader disdain.
Is shorter better?
Fletch, by Gregory McDonald and The Man with the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark, are both fantastic crime novels. The former goes with a written title, ‘Seven’, while Stark’s novel uses just numerals ‘7’.
Believe it or not, even these choices suit their respective stories. Fletch is about a quasi-journalist who strolls, self-possessed but humble, through a murder plot against which his wits are adequate protection. The tone is calm, collected and knowing – a numeral heading would be too brusque, but anything more than a single word would not communicate the hero’s vital air of competence. For this character even the word ‘Chapter’ would be a misrepresentation – he is the type of man who doesn’t waste words, but employs the ones he chooses to use skillfully.
The Man with the Getaway Face is, in contrast, about a brutally efficient armed robber. The writing style is minimalistic, almost clinical, and so even the chapter headings appear in their barest state.
Do chapter headings really matter?
It may feel like I’m overselling the importance of this small feature of a book. Considered individually, it’s indeed true that chapter headings are only a small part of a book’s tone. They are, however, one of the first things the reader encounters and, crucially, they’re not encountered in a vacuum.
In practice, chapter headings are the first road test of the promises made by your title and blurb. The Man with the Getaway Face promises a thrill ride, and yet if the reader were to look inside and see that the author had titled every single chapter they’d begin to suspect that this promise was hollow – a good thriller writer is unlikely to be so indulgent.
In contrast, a reader picking up an epic fantasy would be thrilled to look inside and see the hints of amazing adventure to come.
Many authors get their chapter headings perfect without ever really thinking about why they’re making certain choices. These authors have such an innate understanding of their story’s mood that they instinctively know what works. But even the best author is subject to ego, and many will be tempted to pick the wrong kind of title because it gives them an immediate sense of satisfaction.
Section headings (‘Part 1, Part 2…’ or ‘Book 1, Book 2…’ within a single work) are scaled-up versions of chapter headings. Their very presence implies a pronounced sense of importance – the book’s contents are already too grand to be classified merely by chapter. Again, section headings are usually best suited to genres in which a sense of grandeur is appropriate (or amusingly inappropriate).
As with any rule, though, there are exceptions. The Man with the Getaway Face is surprisingly broken up into sections: ‘One’, ‘Two’, ‘Three’ and ‘Four’. In this case, the business-like presentation, and the way in which the story is segmented according to the protagonist’s goals, actually help to emphasize the atmosphere of intimidating efficiency. This is effective in conjunction with the story itself, but even here a browser could get the wrong message about the book’s tone.
Since chapter headings are so often overlooked, it’s common for different versions of a book to have different headings. While publishers won’t invent a chapter title, they may choose between numerals and words unless given specific instructions. There’s also the risk of decoration: there are versions of The Man with the Getaway Face where the numeral chapter headings are accompanied by meaningless decorative symbols, undercutting the mood of a deliberately sparse narrative.
No-one is interested in circumventing the author’s wishes, so be sure to note that you’ve made your choice for a reason if new versions of a previously published work are around the corner.
Of course there are other factors that play into the perception of your chapter titles. Font size and style play a big part, though again it’s a case of choosing what works with the tone of your story. Children’s books tend to have huge titles that take up half the page, whereas mysteries opt for the discreet and understated.
In the end, it’s just a matter of making mindful choices. So long as you know why you’ve chosen a certain style of presentation, and how it will influence the reader’s perception, then you’re on the right path.
How your book is perceived will rely on many different factors, so while each individual facet is important you shouldn’t get too stressed about one thing ‘ruining’ your book. Try to recognize that every choice you make is another chance to improve your book as a whole, and instead of feeling stressed about your choices you’ll relish them as yet another chance to seize control.
Do you like to name every chapter, or do you think books work better with no headings at all? Let me know in the comments.