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 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.
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.”
Foreshadowing: 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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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