A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about choosing the right book title. While thinking about titles, I also stated to think about varieties of chapter titles. Chapter titles are interesting—some authors use them, some don’t. Sometimes they’re the right fit for a project, sometimes they’re not. Some readers like them because they can add voice and intrigue, others don’t because they can give away what’s going to happen. So, what are the different ways to title chapters, and should you use them?
- Number plus title
The most common way to title chapters is to include the title after the chapter number—for example, “Chapter 1—Waking Up.” With this option, you get the benefits of both chapter numbers and titles, but you get all of the drawbacks as well. This is the most traditional way to title chapters, but you have to make sure that you choose the right title for each chapter. This can also be a problem for novels that alternate POVs in different chapters—if you have to state the character’s name and the title and the number, your headers might look cluttered.
- Title only
Occasionally, you might see books that use chapter titles only, with no numbers. This method certainly isn’t right for every book, as it sets a very distinctive tone. But it might work well for certain stories. The Book Thief is a great example of this. I think the lack of numbers makes the chapters look more disordered, which works especially well with narratives/stories that are intentionally messy or haphazard. It can also work with novels that use very poetic language, as the title-only headers may resemble the titles of poems.
- Number only
Sometimes the lack of a title can set the tone just as well as a title itself can. Often, the less you use to title each chapter, the sharper the tone will be. For example, you can use “Chapter One” or “Chapter 1” or “One” or “1.” The Hunger Games is an example of using digit only—1, 2, 3, etc.—which fits with its dark tone, while a stylized “Chapter One” might fit a literary or historical novel.
As far as the content of your titles, most of the titles I see fit into two broad categories. Of course, there are as many styles as there are writers, but these are what I’ve commonly noticed:
- Short/dramatic/intriguing titles
These are often only one or two words and describe a single, intriguing element of the chapter. Common (cliché) examples:
–simple description, like “Awake”
–a single verb like, “Drowning”
–a setting, like “The Cottage”
–a character description, like “The Red Queen”
–a single object, like “The Dark Sword”
These titles can be really intriguing or mysterious, but be wary of clichés, and be careful not to be too vague or to give too much away.
- Long/voice-y/funny titles
I see this most often in children’s fiction—chapter titles with lots of voice and humor. These are often longer, and less serious, than the more dramatic titles. These might be titles like “It Doesn’t Get Any Weirder Than This” or “The Time I Sucked at Soccer.” A great real example of this is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. But as with the serious titles, be careful not to give too much away here.
Ultimately, whether or not to title your chapters depends entirely upon the book. The only real rule is to be consistent. Whatever type of title you use for chapter one should be used for every subsequent chapter. There’s no right or wrong decision here, just what’s right for you and your book.
What do you think? Do you like chapter titles? What types of chapter titles work best? Let me know in the comments!
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