re: Should Chapter Titles Be Banished?

in General fiction/Narrative Voice by

Dear Editor…

I recently heard that some editors don’t like chapter titles, saying they give things away. Should I not use chapter titles?

Sincerely,
Anonymous

Dear Anonymous…

There’s no anti-chapter title movement simmering within the editorial ranks. It’s very much a book-specific call. Chapter titles can convey vital context, set moods, tease forthcoming content, and enhance stylized narratives. If your WIP doesn’t need those things, skip the titles. I recently advised an author to remove chapter titles from her fantasy because it was a high-action story and the titles did give away plot twists without adding benefit. By contrast, I’m reading The Ballad of Lucy Whipple to my sons at bedtime, and I can’t imagine that book without luxurious chapter titles and subtitles suited to the Gold Rush-era setting: “Chapter 1, Summer 1849: In which I come to California, fall down a hill, and vow to be miserable here.” While that telegraphs events, the compelling voice makes us yearn for the spitfire narrator to entertain us with the details. Each night before turning off the light, I read the next chapter’s title out loud then close the book and leave. My boys shriek at the delicious tease.

Happy writing!
The Editor

15 Comments

  1. Anonymous, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll send me another email. I lost your original contact in a server crash this week and would love to follow up with you. Thanks!

    • Hi Deborah,

      I was person who sent you this question about chapter titles. 🙂
      Thanks so much for posting your response (I adore Karen Cushman’s books) and for offering a follow-up.

      Looking forward to hearing from you again.

      Cheers,
      Sunni

  2. I’ve decided to use Chapter titles in my first story to, as The Editor said, suggest the forthcoming content. It’s also a personal choice for my work, as I just can’t see it having just “Chapter 1” or “1”.

    Having said that, perhaps for a project with lots of Chapters, I’d leave titles out.

  3. This makes perfect sense! Thanks for the info. I do notice that MG novels use ’em more than YA. And whoa, I LOOOOOVE The Ballad of Lucy Whipple!! I read it to my daughters long ago, and we even took it camping with us. I read it by flashlight while they snuggled in their sleeping bags (my hubby too; he enjoyed it along with us). 🙂 Good memories.

    • I’m with you on that, Carol. It’s one of my favorite books ever. We’d just finished reading the adventure mg “Boundless” and I announced, “Now we need something really different!” The boys have a wide interest range when it comes to books, and they did enjoy all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, so I knew they’d enjoy the shift. Speaking of fun subject range, I’m listening to Keith Richards’s autobiography on audiobook and my boys are listening to Oliver Twist. My husband never knows what’ll be blaring in the living room when he walks in. he he he. Gotta keep surprising those hubbies, eh? Good for yours for joining in with Lucy’s story.

  4. I love the question and your answer. I’ve often wondered about this. I think chapter titles are helpful for younger readers because they need the hook to read on. Great post!

  5. I always title my chapters, since I see them structured sort of like short stories, miniature novels unto themselves. Sometimes I get chapter titles from song or poetry lyrics (e.g., “The Beaters in a Ring Close In,” “Trading in His Shelter for Danger”). I’m also kind of old-fashioned, influenced by all the older books I’ve read my whole life, and so am used to chapters having titles.

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