I read a lot of manuscripts that have chapter headings. Ch. 1: The Sniveling Beagle, Ch. 2: Of Peanut Butter and Daiquiris…and so on. I understand that the author uses chapter headings in order to set the reader up as to what they are going to read. But is it necessary?
I’m going to be honest here – I don’t normally read them because they don’t usually make any sense – like I”m supposed to derive some meaning from them but I’m too brain-addled to figure it out. Or worse – the chapter heading was far more clever than the chapter itself! Does this mean I should go stand in the corner and let the beagle draw frowny faces with my bloody red editing pen?
The reason I don’t read them is that they don’t normally reveal anything. I haven’t read the chapter yet, so “Of Peanut Butter and Daiquiris” has no meaning to me. Sure, it’s cute and catchy, but is that a reason to have it there? And by the time I’ve read the chapter, I no longer care about the chapter heading because I’ve moved on to the next chapter.
It seems that a lot of the chapter headings I’ve been seeing lately are like little teasers – as if to say, “Please stay engaged in my story.” It’s as though chapter headings want to join in with the elite crowd that consists of a great title, great synopsis, great tag line, great cover art…and a great story.
But the thing is, a great story doesn’t necessarily need chapter headings because the reader is so engaged, they’ll barely glance at the heading. They’ll simply dig into the chapter.
I know lots of people who don’t read a prologue because the poor prologue has been so abused over the years and reduced to info dumps and all sorts of other literary transgressions. My feeling is if the prologue belongs there – meaning that it contains information the reader needs so that the story makes sense, or it has information that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the book and it’s vital to the storyline.
And that’s the quandary with chapter headings. They carry none of those burdens, so what’s their purpose?
Authors aren’t intentionally lazy, but there are certain things they do to create the same result. Most chapters need to transition into each other in much the same way paragraphs do. I’ve noticed that chapters headings tend to have little segue into the following chapter because the author let the heading do the job for them.
It’s a lot like my aversion to relying on punctuation to do the job of writing. If you pepper your manuscript with exclamation points, you tend to get lazy about conveying the emotion of fear or excitement. “Hey, no worries,” sez you, “I stuck an exclamation point in there. The reader understands my character is yelling/excited/angry.”
Problem is, they don’t always get it. Or they get bored because they keep seeing them. Chapter headings mean little to the reader because they haven’t read the chapter yet. Many headings are too elusive for the reader to derive its meaning, and by the time they read the chapter, the heading is moot.
Now, in spite of my heading aversion, there are times when it makes sense to have chapter headings. Nonfiction is one of those places where it’s helpful because you’re conveying little tidbits of information. These chapter headings aren’t cutesy or allegorical. They are to the point and let the reader know where this chapter is headed. And it’s intentional.
Like everything else literary, there are no hard fast rules. It’s a gut feel. It might be helpful to ask yourself is why you have chapter headings at all. Just like everything else in your manuscript, you need to have a reason for having it there – whether it’s a prologue or backstory. If you go about writing your book consciously, then you may find that chapter headings add zip to your book or have no impact whatsoever. Consider removing and ask yourself whether your book has the same punch and pow.
Conversely, ask yourself why you want them there. It may be that it’s perfectly fine to include them. All I ask is that you consider them consciously rather than falling into the trap that “all books have chapter headings.” They don’t, and you should make sure yours are there for a specific reason.
So how does it go for you? Chapter headings or simple numbers? If so, why?