Chapter headings – to be, or not to be

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?

Laziness Factor?

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.

Convey Information

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.

Why?

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?

16 Responses to Chapter headings – to be, or not to be

  1. Lauren says:

    Peanut Butter and Daiquiris

    Hmm. The combination sounds interesting. And with the three-day weekend coming up . . .

  2. Moondoggie says:

    I recently re-read “A Tale of Two Cities” and as a result, deleted all of my chapter titles. The titles worked for Dickens but they weren’t working for me. I started hitting the delete key because I thought my titles made my manuscript seem amateur and antiquated. Having just read your post, however, I now realize the real reason for my deletions. The titles were indeed lazy transitions. Or worse, they were billboards of explanation, like a big fat, “HINT HINT dumb reader!” ss though they couldn’t intuit the intent of my chapters on their own. In my opinion, if the reader needs a hint, the writing is likely lacking. So for me, it’s numbers only. Chapter titles may work down the road, but for now, not having them is forcing me to work harder and write better.

  3. Lauren, you’re so easy to please.

    Moondoggie: So much of what was acceptable and fabulous ‘way back doesn’t necessarily translate to modern literature for the simple reason that our tastes have changed. Glad this post helped clarify what wasn’t working for you.

  4. Digital Dame says:

    I’m using them in my draft kind of to help me keep track of what I’m doing, but ultimately they’ll be replaced with the ol’ “Chapter 1… Chapter 2…”

  5. kimkircher says:

    I know what you mean about skipping over chapter headings. When reading, I hope I’m so engaged in the story that I don’t even read them. As a writer, I find them distracting and cumbersome. I might come up with a few good ones, but the rest feel forced.

  6. NinjaFingers says:

    I’ve never yet bothered with chapter headings…for the same reason. I don’t read them, so I don’t see them as at all necessary.

  7. Terry Odell says:

    I’ve never been a fan of chapter titles, or quotes or other headers. I think I started skimming over them in college textbooks, because the meat in that section was what I had to learn. And as for my own books–it’s all I can do to come up with a title for the book. If I had to be clever at each of the 30+ chapters, I’d go nuts.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place

  8. tbrosz says:

    I’ve got chapter titles, but they’re short, and no spoilers (my wife pointed a couple of spoilers and I changed them).

    I’ve noticed a return to more archaic styles of writing in some books for younger readers. This sometimes even includes the traditional “In which…” headers on each chapter. You know: “In which our hero discovers that relieving oneself on an electric fence has unpleasant consequences.” These are almost always spoilers unless very cleverly written. Actually, some authors make them work fairly well, but I wouldn’t do it.

  9. Chris says:

    I like chapter titles. As long as they are clever. I also learned that some people identifify with their favorite chapters by the names. Rather than chapter 1,2,or 3. I’ve always thought they could be fun. Clues. Why do people continue to read, to see what happens next. I like the idea of dropping tiny hints as to where I may or may not be headed next by way of chapter titles. It almost lets the reader play the role of detective. What say you Lynn?

  10. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, what do you think of books that don’t even have chapter numbers but just run chapters/sections together with breaks?

  11. Gah, I’ve seen what you’re talking about, Lev, and it drove me insane because I never felt like I got a break. Chapter breaks aren’t a stylistic choice, but an efficient way of feeding us the story in bite-sized, manageable pieces. I have no idea why authors think otherwise. It’s like those who think they’re being so artsy fartsy by removing quotes around dialog and simply using a dash. WTF?

    Chris, I mentioned how in some books, it makes sense to use chapter headings. Your fabulous upcoming book, Off the Street, is a perfect example of that. The way you unfold your case, it really helps to have that wee hint.

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  13. thegracefuldoe says:

    In some of my writing I use chapter titles, but not always. It just depends what feels right for the story.

    I actually do like chapter titles when reading for a couple reasons:
    1. A cleverly written chapter title can make me excited for the coming chapter, and if I’m about to close the book for the night but see an interesting chapter title for the next chapter I might be enticed to keep reading.
    2. I also like chapter titles because they make excellent place markers. If one of my children happens to take my bookmark and loses my place or I’m looking for a particular scene, it’s much easier to determine where I was up to by looking at chapter titles to clue me in than trying to remember which number chapter it was (as long as the chapter titles aren’t too vague or ridiculous and actually have something to do with the chapter).

  14. elleonthego says:

    Interesting. Most of the time, they are pointless. What about throwing confusion?
    Elle

  15. Glen says:

    I agree that a good story compels you to read the next chapter because you want to find out what happens next. Probably the best place to create a little extra suspense or curiosity is in the last paragraph of the preceding chapter. Nonetheless, I think there are times when an intriguing chapter title can also be compelling.

  16. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, I think a book without chapter breaks can work if it’s short. I seem to recall “In the Cut” was written that way–but I was so swayed by the voice, I could be mis-remembering. Usually, though, like you, I don’t respond well to not having chapter breaks.

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