Monday, December 07, 2015

Words or Numbers? What’s the Best Way to Label Your Chapters?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Breaking a novel down into smaller, easier-to-read bits is the most common way to write a novel these days. We have chapters, parts, even separate books in a series for those larger stories. With all that organization, it’s not surprising that there are quite a few ways to help readers keep track.

Like chapter titles.

Pretty basic things, but there are several ways we can handle them. So of course, we sometimes worry if we’re doing it right.

Fret not. There’s no right way to label a chapter. Simply find the one that works for that story and run with it. Options include:

The Number

The most basic label is naming your chapters with numbers—one, two, three, etc. Clean, easy to follow, and they don’t intrude on the readers’ experience, allowing them to just zip on through the novel.

Number titles come in two forms—using just the number (in word or number form): ONE or 1, and adding Chapter in front of it: Chapter One or Chapter 1.

Pick which you like and go wild.

The Title

Sometimes we want to give our chapters a title, such as “Birthday” or “Into the Wilderness.” These titles typically mean something about the chapter itself and convey additional information. Some options:

Locations or settings: Something like “Into the Wilderness” might show the story has changed settings without labeling it or going to a lot of detail describing it.

Tone or mood: You might want to create a particular tone or mood, preparing the reader for humor with a funny title, such as “A Man Walks Into a Bar…” or a pun, “Fleet Footed.”

Titles can create mystery or a sense of foreboding, preparing readers for what’s to come. “Well That Went Badly” or “An Unexpected Find” can make readers wonder about their meaning and how they’ll fit into the tale.

Personal commentary:
Sometimes a title represents the character in the scene and how they see the story, such as, “I Should Have Stayed in Bed” or “Joe’s Attempt at Math Sucked.”

Theme: Each title might tie into a larger theme, maybe even playing off what happens in the scene itself to create a bigger picture.

No matter what the title is, it’s there for a reason, and that reason helps create a better story.

The Combo Package

We can even combine the two, and use something like, “Chapter Five: Sharks Rush In.” This type of setup clearly shows the start of a new chapter, but also adds a little information about it to prepare readers.

The Bigger Picture Addition

We might also use chapter labels to provide more macro information, such as rules or sayings common to the world. They usually relate to the chapter in some way, but also have a larger scope behind them that helps build the world—“Rule Two: Never look a kompfor directly in the eye.” Chances are readers will discover this rule in use in this chapter, but it might also be metaphoric and refer to avoiding dangerous people in general.

All of these are perfectly good and useful ways to label a chapter, and it’s up to us to decide which style is best. There are some guidelines to keep in mind though:

Whatever you pick, be consistent: If you use titles or sayings, do it with purpose. If some chapters have titles and others don’t, and it’s not clear why (such as one character’s chapters always do, but no one else’s does), you’ll likely confuse readers.

Don’t give away the good stuff: If the goal is to build tension or mystery, don’t use a title that gives away the reveal. If you want to shock readers with a fact, starting the chapter with “Lola Discovers a Terrible Truth” is going to steal some of that surprise.

Don’t expect readers to read them: Not every reader is going to pay attention to the labels, so don’t use anything that changes how the chapter is seen, such as “A Waking Dream” that titles a chapter that’s all a dream, and there are no other clues to show it isn’t real. Treat labels like special prizes for paying attention, not required reading.

Labeling chapters can add a lot to a story, but not every novel needs them. If you feel they’d make it better, feel free to use them, but if they’re not your thing, don’t worry about skipping them.

What chapter labels do you like to use?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I read somewhere (maybe it was here at Fiction University) that where in the flow of the story you divide into chapters is purely subjective. With this thought in mind, I go for the number way. It's a pause in the story as far as I'm concerned.

    1. I've said something similar, so it could have been here. A pause in the story...I like that. Very fitting way to describe a chapter break.

  2. My genre is historical fiction set in the gold rush era. The first book published about that was "The Vigilantes of Montana." The author, Thomas Dimsdale, who incidentally was on-scene so he knew what he was talking about, used Roman Numerals, with a short blurb on what was to follow, or alternatively, a quotation from Shakespeare. That's what I am doing, although I'm not sure about the Roman Numerals.

    1. I assume that was non-fiction? That would be a useful way to keep readers on board. Not sure how a "what's to come" translates to fiction, but it'll be interesting to see how it works out for you. :)

  3. When writing the first draft, I usually label chapters with words so I get a general feel of what's going on and I can shift them around. But when I edit it I replace the words with numbers. All a matter of opinion, really.

    1. That is a fabulous idea. I use Scrivener, and I create a folder with the chapter, then all the scenes are files. Chapter gets named by number, but the scenes are descriptive. Similar, and I love your idea of doing that with chapters as well.

  4. I usually use ni,bets because I want the chapter to speak for itself, but I like Michelle's idea better

    1. I love her idea, too. Very handy for drafting.

  5. Numbers * stupid tablet, haha

  6. In second or third draft I did what Michael did in Scrivener so I knew what was in each chapter. Now in my fifth draft, I'm just using numbers. Hopefully I know what I'm talking about by now. But one never knows!

    1. We can always hope! My problem, is I change stuff in a scene, but don't always make the description title reflect that :)

  7. I like word-numbers and then a one or two word chapter title. Since I don't always get the chapter divisions right in the first go, I add the chapter numbers last. It saves me from discovering I have two chapter sevens and no chapter fourteen. :)

    1. Smart! One of my books, I skipped chapter nine and we didn't notice it until copyedits, lol. No clue how it made it past all those rounds of edits.

  8. I'm big into naming. Short titles are best because even I don't pay a whole lot of attention to long names. I use them to quick-find each chapter (or categorize them) during my drafts. But I also LIKE naming them. Give me your draft with numbered chapters & I can probably name every one of them... including the book itself. As a wanna-be author, that's probably one of the best skills I have. I'm working on all the rest it takes to publish.

  9. I've read a series that used a line of dialogue from the chapter for the title. It worked really well. Slightly intrigue, sometime funny, never makes a heap of sense out of context.

    1. I think I've seen that as well. I remember them being funny, but couldn't say what book anymore.

  10. I don't even have chapters yet (just notes and bits of text) but I'm planning to use lyrics and song titles from the punk genre. It is strongly related to my main character and the family she was raised in, her values, etc.
    It has a few cons of course (like: some chapters will need a lot of research to find the perfect bit of lyrics to fit the story), but I like the idea that the most invested/curious readers will maybe google them before or after reading, and for those who will be already familiar with the song, it's like finding an easter egg. Who doesn't like an easter egg?
    I also know that it's not guaranteed success, because readers might be annoyed by chapter titles being a little bit longer than usual, and like some readers don't like to be told what characters look like, I'm sure there also are readers who don't like to have a musical atmosphere forced on them. They like to create their own in their mind, or maybe on a special reading playlist (who else does that?). Otherwise they would go and see the movie instead!
    Oh, and I forgot to mention, if my story becomes famous after I'm gone, the directors will know what music to use =D

    1. One word of caution on song lyrics...they're copyrighted, so any publisher who buys the book will have to get permission to use them, which can be a problem. You might have more leeway with titles (I don't think those are copyrighted), but check to make sure you aren't violating any laws.

      I like the concept of the chapters being Easter eggs though. :)

  11. Yeah that's one thing I need to be careful about, thanks for the caution =)

  12. I was looking at this post bc my WIP has forty-ish chapters/scenes, and I was considering all sorts of formats. Numbering makes sense, as I don't want to slow down the reader, only demarcate a shift in time.