3 Secret Functions of Your Books Title

3 Secret Functions of Your Book’s Chapter Titles

As a writer, you’re already aware of the power of your book’s title to identify its genre, allude to its subject matter, and create that first shiny hook to catch a reader’s eye. A title is your chance to stop the feet or finger of a hungry browser in a bookstore or online and to convince him to enter your story world. But the little string of words on the outside of your book isn’t the only phrase with that power. Your book’s chapter titles present chances to play the game again, with linguistic lures that can keep your audience turning pages way past bedtime.

1. Use Chapter Titles to Attract Your Audience

Names you know play this game well. Lewis Carroll points to Alice’s travails with signposts like: “Down the Rabbit-Hole” and “The Pool of Tears.” With even simpler markers like “Nantucket,” “Chowder,” and “Going Aboard,” Melville showers a bit of salt spray onto many of the openers of his tale of the great white whale.

Moby Dick

Simple strategies like that work well, but there are even trickier games to be played. Annie Proulx uses knot names like “Love Knot,” “Strangle Knot,” and “A Rolling Hitch” to tie her readers to her maritime story of redemption in Newfoundland. And in “The Odds,” Stewart O’Nan underscores his theme of a failed marriage’s last chance for success at a casino by calculating the specific probability of events with chapter titles like: “Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary: 1 in 6.”

These tactics share a common mission to attract readers. But long before your book hits the shelf, chapter titles can play a potent role in shaping it as well.

2. Use Chapter Titles to Find Your Focus

The best-built stories have chapters with a clearly defined mission that works to support its overarching premise. String enough of these together in an organic way that ties cause and effect to escalating tension and you’re well on your way to creating the clean throughline that produces publishable work. The same process of ruthless editing that creates that lean story spine can be used to condense the heart of each chapter to a few key words. Thinking deeply about those words creates focus.

Here’s an example from my novel in progress: Autumn Imago. The story premise is: A loner who has rejected his estranged family to protect himself from the pain of his sister’s death is forced to reunite with them at the scene of that tragedy where he must choose between a life of reconciliation or isolation. Early in the book I present the protagonist’s (Paul’s) potential romantic interest: Cassie, a fellow park ranger.

Paul’s fear of intimacy has him shying away from Cassie when they get too close. Paul’s love of fly-fishing is introduced early on, so the title for this chapter: “Catch and Release” does double-duty in pointing to the story world and serving as a metaphor for Paul’s emotional reserve. When I write a title like this I can easily proof the chapter’s mission’s relation to my story premise. In this case, establishing Paul’s self-imposed social isolation in “Catch and Release” supports the “loner” identity I’ve referenced at the start of his story arc. That point starts him on the path that leads to his choice of reconciliation or isolation. The mission of the chapter aligns with my premise.

3. Use Chapter Titles to Orient to Your Story World

As you dive deeper into your work, chapter titles can also orient you when you’re lost in the story swamp. For me, the writing program Scrivener’s binder structure serves as the compass that contains the cardinal points that help me navigate through my novel. In the screen shot below, you can see my working manuscript copy for “Catch and Release” in the pane to the right. A quick glance to the left shows where that chapter lives within the larger work I’ve outlined. (I’ve expanded each mission message a bit to illustrate these relationships in the yellow boxes shown.)

Scrivener Screen Shot

By defining and proofing the mission of each chapter in the method described above, I’ve created a map in the Scrivener binder that I can quickly scan to review what’s happening before and after the chapter I’m exploring. This reference helps me build the kind of cause and effect relationships that allow each chapter to grow out of, and into, the one before and after it.

Keep Your Chapter Titles Flexible

Of course flexibility is critical to following the strategies outlined above, and that’s another key to harnessing a chapter title’s power. If I craft chapter titles that sum up the heart of the chapter I’m writing, but their message doesn’t align with my premise, I know the chapters need to be rewritten or cut. In the same manner, if my chapter’s position within the storyline I’ve defined presents problems with plausibility or continuity, it may also need to be cut, edited, or simply moved to a spot where it makes more sense.

Finally, beyond a title’s power to attract an audience, focus your work, and keep you oriented within the world of your story, the simple process of boiling down your book into the short phrases that capture its essence burns your tale deeper into your brain with every chapter title you take on. That kind of intimacy with your subject is the hallmark of a seasoned writer. It’s a sure sign you’re creating chapter titles that will live on the tips of many happy readers’ tongues.

Tell me your opinion: Do you use chapter titles in your books? Why or why not?

3 Secret Functions of Your Book's Title

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About Bryan Wiggins | @brywig

Bryan Wiggins is an ad agency Creative Director and freelance writer whose personal essays have been published in Canoe & Kayak, Sea Kayaker, and The Maine Review. He also gives regular presentations of “Mastering Your Muse: Strategies and Software for Shaping Inspiration,” an in-depth, illustrated overview of his writing process that has been sponsored by the Maine Writers
and Publishers Alliance and “The Muse and the Marketplace” literary conference in Boston. He blogs regularly about writing.

Comments

  1. I sort of do in my first book as it’s historical based fiction, going from June 1984 to August 1987, I put each month in the story as a chapter heading. In my latest novel, I definitely use chapter headings. I really like some of the ones I use. For the chapter where the protagonist goes and shoots up his school, I call that chapter “Pop Star for a Day” and the chapter where the lawyers get the victims of that shooting to sue everybody, that is called “The Crocodiles Descend.” Some others are more to the point.

  2. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Another reason for chapter titles if they are hyperlinked within the e-book versions is to allow a reader an easier way to find a chapter or scene s/he enjoyed and wants to read again.

    Assuming, of course, that anyone would want to read a particular scene or chapter again.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Bryan!

  4. I absolutely use chapter titles. I think not using them is a wasted opportunity to create suspense, mystery, and world build, whether you’re writing fantasy or an actual mystery. If you do it right, the chapter titles are not spoilers for those readers who are using the “look inside this book feature,” and they could potentially hook a prospective reader.

    I’ve been using Scrivener for two years now, and I’m even in the habit of naming scenes. The reader will never see the scene titles, but the titles help jog my memory of when certain events happen within a chapter. I can also see the structure of the story in those scene titles.

    I agree on changing chapter titles when the title is promising something different than what the chapter actually contains.

    Speaking of moving chapters — As a Scrivener user, I keep a folder titled “Unplaced Scenes,” an idea I found at a Scrivener-user’s site (I can’t remember who). I put scenes in that folder when I’ve written them out of order, and move them to their proper place when I finally get to it. It lets me get that scene out of the way without being disorganized.

  5. As a reader, the biggest hook for me in any book is the chapter titles. I always scan those first, and if any of them look interesting, I’ll go straight to them. If they pique my interest, then I’ll read the whole book. I think chapter titles are a must!

    As a writer, I’ve needed this post for SO LONG. I’ve Googled for posts like this, and this is the first one I’ve ever found. Thank-you! My beta readers told me my chapters titles needed some work, and I spent a whole day a couple of weeks ago working on twelve of them. They are much stronger, more cohesive, and more interesting. And your principles explained why. I’m definitely bookmarking this article for future use!

    ~Schuyler

    • So glad you found the post helpful Schuyler! You’re note about how you browse chapter titles to test-drive a novel provides excellent insight into the marketing power of well conceived titles.

  6. You know, I haven’t. But after reading the first Percy Jackson fantasy, I was intrigued with the author’s use of chapter titles. And fun ones like “I incinerate my Algebra teacher.” I mean, what kid wouldn’t dive into that chapter? I’m writing my own middle grade now, and I may employ this strategy. Thanks for the scrivener tip. That’ll be much easier to understand than “Scene 24.)

    • I don’t think the Percy Jackson book is a good example. Every one of the chapter titles is a spoiler.

      • I LOVE the Percy Jackson chapter titles. They do say some of the stuff that happens in the chapter, but usually not the main thing.

        I personally though really started to notice the chapter titles when I read the first Gods of Asgard book. Every single one was hilarious.

        And the ones in The Trials of Apollo are all haiku, which was really clever

        • Aspiring Author says:

          The Percy Jackson chapter titles are amazing, as are the Gods of Asgard’s chapter titles. They capture just the right amount of humor and suspense in them. Yes, they do somewhat give away the chapter, but before reading the book, “I Incinerate my Algebra Teacher” doesn’t really make sense.
          I am currently writing a book, and I am testing out different chapter titling methods, including this one.

  7. I’ve tried this for a couple of past WIPs, and in the end I had to say RIP to those titles. They were somewhat helpful to me during editing, but I didn’t want a reader to suffer through my chapter titles. I also found it difficult to come up with clever succinct titles that weren’t also spoilers.

    I wonder also whether outliners find this easier than pantsers, ahem, organic writers. I’m in the latter camp. : (

    • To answer your question, I’m a hybrid pantster-planner. I generally know the beginning, a set piece or two, and the end. I do not know how I’ll get there! The chapter/scene titles for me come as I begin to write them, because I generally know what I *intend* to have happen. And sometimes I’ll use a placeholder title, and go back and change it when the story is more fleshed out.

  8. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative doesn’t feature chapters:

    The nature of its story doesn’t lend to the format.

  9. Thabks for the article Bryan. I use chapter titles in my writing my outline. It really does help. I liked your mapping in scrivener screen shot and am curious where did you put your mission statement in scrivener… The document notes or the chapter card in the corkboard or somewhere else?

    • Thanks Michael. I use my one sentence premise as my novel’s “mission statement” in Scrivener. It lives at the top of the detailed novel outline I use to guide my tale. That document sits in a dedicated folder that sits above the master “manuscript” folder in the binder. The manuscript folder contains a folder for every chapter of my novel. Each chapter folder contains one document that lists the chapter title, timeframe, mission, and chapter synopsis. I then create as many drafts of the chapter within that folder as it takes to create the final content I’m after. I regularly use Scrivener’s split screen to keep my novel outline in the left pane as I develop my chapter content in the right.

  10. robert easterbrook says:

    Yes, I do. But I haven’t perfected this yet. 🙂

  11. Thanks for the post Katie. I’ve used chapter titles in each of my four manuscripts. Just something I did with my first WIP and have continued doing since then. Someone recently suggested I didn’t need them as my chapters are fairly short and fast moving but I like them. Sometimes they are working titles that I change later or I might put a couple of options up before I choose which one I like best. I think they help me focus on what and why I’m writing a scene, I like them to be a hook to the reader & am very pleased when they do double duty or have a double meaning (like your Catch and Release).

  12. The second and third “functions” are besides the point, I think. The point should be something that makes it a better experience for the reader.

    I have used chapter titles in my novels.

  13. I never use chapter titles in my novels, I don’t know why, seems to me as if they breack up the flow. But I do use them while I’m working on the story.

    I don’t use Scrivener, but the program I use, Liquid Story Binder, allowes to break down the story in chapters and scenes and allows to give a title and a short synopsis of few words to each segment. It looks like a huge work to do when you organise the story, but it’s so useful. At least I find it extremely useful. It allows me to name each part and find them easily. It gives me an organic image of the story when I look at the planer and above all, writing down the description of each scene has me really thinking what the core of that scene is and how it relates to all the others. I do think this work made my story stronger on many levels.

  14. Of course, chapter titles or even chapters are not needed for a successful ripping yarn, as Terry Pratchett has shown. 🙂 However, I use them a lot, and they are very fun to play around with.

  15. Jay McMahon says:

    Late to the party on reading this article – came across it trying to figure out formatting of all things. That said, I found it an interesting read, and wanted to comment.

    In fiction work, I do use chapter titles. As other people have mentioned, too much information or spoilers can and do happen (far too frequently in my opinion) just within a few words, and I took that heavily into account when making the do/don’t decision.

    Ultimately, I examined the chapters and selected sections of sentences (strictly dialogue) that either I wanted to emphasize, or that the character felt passionately about. Fulfilling the criteria I’d laid out for myself – that they be spoiler-free, sound interesting, have relevance to the chapter, and not be too lengthy – proved to be a big challenge.

    I felt it was quite worth it, however, for on feedback draft copies, four of five readers noticed/mentioned the title-to-dialogue connection on their own; of those four, three went on to say once they realized said connection existed, it became a hunt of sorts for them, and they almost felt rewarded when they found the dialogue within the chapter.

  16. Thanks for an interesting article. I write for over fifteen years and have always struggled with chapter (and part) titles. They can be a pain, but I find it much too difficult to navigate the text without them, especially if some chapters were moved around.

  17. Brilliant! Thank you!
    I always take the name of a character in the chapter (they have names based on words such as Path, Crown, Leaf) and use them to summarize what will happen. For example, when Crown disappears, the chapter is called Crownless, but the chapter also talks about how the duke needs to reign over his land again.
    I love playing with chapter’s names.

  18. I like to use chapter titles because I think it makes the book more interesting. And it lets the reader know something to look forward to, sometimes (without spoilers).

    I usually use my favorite line, either of dialogue or something else, that is either the best part of the chapter or the focus of the chapter.

Trackbacks

  1. […] an interesting article on chapter titles while doing a bit of research for this blog article; 3 Secret Functions of Your Book’s Chapter Titles by Bryan Wiggins. He talks about using chapter titles for finding focus. The titles can, for […]

  2. […] In a guest post for Helping Writers Become Authors, Bryan Wiggins outlines 3 crucial purposes of chapter names: […]

Speak Your Mind

*