Perhaps you know the feeling. You’ve finished something that you are pretty proud to have written. Trying not to give away just how damn good you feel about your incredible creative powers, you give it to someone else to read. Then, they come back with a suggestion for a small tweak that will improve it many times over.
How infuriating is it not to have thought of it first?
In my case, the small tweak in question was to give the chapters titles. I’d submitted a manuscript to the publisher and that was the immediate response. I went back into the document, crafted some chapter names and, what do you know, he was right. It really did make a big difference.
The experience did make me think. I do sometimes write chapter titles, but not always, as this example shows. What are the pros and cons of including them? Let’s begin with the pros.
In the case of non fiction, in say a self help, or how-to business book, chapter headings are a great way to get the key messages of the book across. It is quite likely the chapters will be broken down into themes, and this is a quick and useful shorthand to say: this chapter is about ‘growth’, or ‘adapting’ or ‘starting a movement’. Chapter names give readers a better understanding of what to expect.
Continuing on a similar theme, these clear signposts may also be a helpful sales tool. We all know how useful book titles and cover images can be in selling to the reader. If someone is curious enough to flick through the book, the chapter titles could be what helps get them over the line. Chapter titles, if you get them right, have the power to elicit feelings of curiosity or excitement.
When it comes to fiction, interesting chapter titles can help readers engage with a book. Each subsequent heading could add suspense, or suggest a change in plot, which draws people in and encourages them to read on. Compare:
Chapter 15 – The Last Stand
This could, of course, backfire if not done well. Which brings me to the cons part. It is possible to be too descriptive. My favourite example of this comes from The Children of Hurin by J.R.R Tolkien, where no less than three chapter titles are ‘The death of (insert name of key character here)’. Spoiler alert!
Another significant con is that writing chapter names is not easy. As everyone involved in book production will attest, just getting the name of the book right is tough. Some people will agonise over what will go on the cover for weeks, if not months. Now, times that process by 12, 15 or more. If you are not sure that you have the creative abilities to name your chapters well, it may be better not to do it all. It will be worse to end up with weak chapter titles, or a combination of some strong, some very weak, or titles that completely give the game away. Likewise, it is a big mistake to write really long chapter titles in a bid to flag what next. If your chapter title becomes a story in its own right that is a bad thing.
Perhaps the final con to consider is: if you are inserting chapter headers to properly explain or clarify what a chapter is about, maybe the content is not quite right.
It won’t always be the right choice to include, or exclude, chapter titles. You will need to take it on a case by case basis. Sometimes they will add something, sometimes not. It is something to consider though. Lesson learned.
Teena Lyons publishes a regular blog at www.professionalghost.com