Thursday, March 15, 2012

March Madness: Chapter Titles

This post applies mainly to YA and Adult. Not middle grade, chapter books, nonfiction, etc.

Confession. I hate chapter titles. I think it comes from when I was younger, reading chapter books, I could predict what was going to happen in the chapter based on the title and picture. Honestly, snotty child that I was, I felt like they were insulting my intelligence. So, to this day, I tend to ignore everything about chapter headings--chapter number, quotes, title, POV shift (part of the reason I have issues reading POV shifts). I've only allowed one of my clients to retain chapter titles, and that's because they're awesome, relevant, and give nothing away about the plot (that I can tell, maybe there's a whole other layer I don't get--I'm okay with that).

Because I feel like being cheeky

Here's another thing about chapter titles. When reading, I get so totally absorbed into a story that I completely forget that I'm even holding a book. So chapter titles, and anything that draws me out of the story, is super annoying.

Of course, there is always a time and a place.

POV shifts, especially first person POV shifts, do need a designation. However, make sure the voice helps the reader shift. If your two characters sound exactly alike, there's a bigger problem going on.

Part 1, part 2, part 3 with titles while chapter titles just have numbers. When this is done well, and the Part titles are clever, relevant, and make me go, o okay I get it, I'll go with it.

If you do have chapter headings, or even just the chapter numbers, do not make them fancy in your ms. There is a chance it'll get lost in translation. Set them either to the left or center, same font as the text, bold or italics if you must.

And that's my very personal opinion on the subject. It is, as many things in this business are, subjective. Some other may have differing opinions to mine, or even no preference at all. If you want to keep your chapter titles, be my guest. I will not discriminate when considering your ms. If I sign you, I will, in all likelihood, make you scrap them.

Happy writing!


Colin Smith said...

I don't know that I've read many (if any) other agents address this subject. I suppose you REALLY hate 18th/19th century novels that give you a little synopsis of the chapter under the chapter number! :) I must say, I tend to agree. I like to be surprised.

Excellent information, as always, Vickie. Thanks! :)

Kristine Asselin said...

This post made me smile. Just smilin' over here. :)

Adam Gaylord said...

I have to agree. I have a hard enough time finding stories that keep me guessing. The last thing I need are big glaring hints at the beginning of each chapter.

Mart Ramirez said...

I've never given my chapters titles and now that you mentioned it I don't think I want to. You have a good point! Thanks for sharing your feedback with us.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Chapters don't need titles. That's what all the other words in the chapter are for. I don't like getting a hint about what it's about before I read it. I like the actual writing to stand on its own.

I don't mind the numbers, and I find them incredibly useful in case my bookmark falls out half way through the book. "OH! I was on chapter 21, about two thirds through the book" I'm terrible about noticing page numbers, but I tend to remember what the last big chapter number I read was.

Unknown said...

Agree with you on the chapter titles; I don't read jacket flaps or other summaries (if I can help it) for the same reason. I don't like ANYTHING to influence the overall reading experience.

I use chapter titles when I'm writing to help me keep track of what happens where, but they're just for my reference. :)

Rebecca Christiansen said...

I think I've only used chapter titles once, ever... and they were in place of numbers, and they were only one or two words each. And it had two first-person POV characters! But one's titles would be dramatic like "Violation" and the other's would be more along the lines of "She did what where with whom?!" :P

Unknown said...

I've always hated Chapter titles too!! I usually just brush over them :) I think that's why I have such a hard time writing my queries because I don't want to give any information away. Gotta work on that one :)

Jeanne said...

A woman in my critique group writes the best chapter titles I've seen. Her humorous novel is set at an art college, so the chapter titles are parodies of titles of famous works. Each title combines the essence of the chapter with a quirky view of the art world.

Susan Fields said...

Thanks for this post! I do have chapter titles in my current ms, but now I think I'll get rid of them - I certainly don't want to give too much away.

Tex said...

To be honest, my only motivation for including chapter titles isn't to head up the chapters themselves, but to create a front page / table of contents that will entice the reader standing there in the bookstore aisle, or clicking through Amazon's "Look Inside" feature.

The way I see it, the more interesting "extras" you can provide outside the actual wall of text that is the narrative, the more likely casual browsers are to give your book a shot. There's the cover art, of course, the title, the blurb on the back, and in the case of otherworldly fantasy novels (my home turf), usually a map or two on the inside cover, plus a glossary of foreign words or proper names at the back. (Many readers in this genre seem to like having a whole 'kit' with which to venture forth into parts unknown.)

To that, if I can add a table of contents that includes a list of chapter names like "Strange Ladies" or "The Crow Prince" or "Concerning Fishmen" and pick up an extra reader or two by virtue of curiosity, I'll consider it a good investment.

Your point about passive spoilers is a good one, though, and one I hadn't given much thought before. That definitely warrants some consideration and maybe some strategic re-approach. Thanks, ma'am!

S. D. Grimm said...

This post made me think. I do have chapter titles, and like them. But I never read chapter titles while reading a book!

And when chapters have those quotes at the beginnings that bugs me too! I never read those. I don't want a commercial break while I'm reading. Especially because then I'm thinking "I wonder how that will fit into the chapter . . ."

Carrie-Anne said...

I always have chapter titles, partly as a way of outlining the memorized story in my head before I start writing it, partly because I've read mostly older books, when it was more common to title chapters. It would seem weird and wrong for me to NOT have chapter titles. Though some of my books don't have chapters, but are divided into Parts and sections.

It seems like a sign of bad writing if a chapter title really gives away exactly what happens, instead of just setting the mood or giving a little hint. Some of my chapter titles include "Facing the Music in Minnesota," "Novgorod," "Kalinin," "Ellis Island," "Meet and Greet," "Vote YES on a Third Term!," "Happy Birthday, Max," "Trapped in Two Charades," and "Union with a Snake." I've had a lot of fun selecting titles for some of my chapters, and like when I can use a title that was influenced by a song or work of literature.

Laura Pauling said...

I tend to love chapter titles when they fit the story. Usually when the story is humorous - as long as they don't give anything away! But I'm just as happy without chapters title too.

Anonymous said...

My current high fantasy WIP has chapter titles, but they are pretty symbolic and I don't think they give anything away (I even changed one a while ago to avoid that problem).

They also help differentiate shifts in POV. And I feel like they fit this particular story.

As a reader, I always read chapter titles, but I do get annoyed by quotes at the beginning of chapters. Especially when they are poetry. Yet I cannot make myself skip them!

Wendy Delfosse said...

I don't like them either and for pretty much the same reason. I have a vague memory of a book whose chapter titles (I think I looked back at the table of contents) felt like it gave the book away and I had a hard time finishing that book. Plus titling the book is hard enough, I really don't want to do that 20 times or more for something that may actually make the book worse.