Novel titles and chapter headings


Maybe all this should arrive later?

A good novel takes you to a different place. It gives you someone else’s story. It might be good things or bad things, something easy to relate to, or something as far away from your own life as here to the moon. Which depending where here is, might be very far away. A good novel takes you away from your own life, but also explains a little about it. Myself, and many other bloggers are working on a novels, or projects of a similar nature. It is hoped that with the right mix of words, ideas, technical bits and passion, that these will become good novels, and find some readers. Hopefully the reader finds that little thing that gives them thought after they put the novel down, it finds a connection with a part of their life.

A well written novel does not make the technical bits too obvious, even if they are staring the reader in the face. Perhaps chapters are of a similar length so the reader can look, understand the structure and think, I can get through two or three of these before work, or before sleep. Perhaps the title infers something that leads the reader to think a certain way. I have noticed some bloggers will discuss their various writing projects, referring by the project’s title, i.e. it has one to refer to, where as others like my self just refer to a “project” itself. Why might this be?

I am a little secretive about my fiction projects, I like to give little away. It is not so much that I am embarrassed about the title, or I think it might be stolen. I just see it as my project, my thing, until it is finished, and then it can belong to everybody else as well. For me the title is a part of that, although hypocritically, it could be used as a teaser as well, if I feel I have a good one. More often, there is something else. When I start a project, I do not always know what the title is. I prefer to have a working title, then let the title arrive organically through the writing. If a good one pops up, then it will be kept, and maybe used. It needs to grow from the project. For me, it does not need a title whilst being written. For other writers, it is a little like a child, they prefer a name that they can lead, or leads them, through the story. They nurture the story from it, and help it grow.

A title could be important in marketing the project. That could be a further reason why I am happy to leave it until later.

As I pointed out above, how the chapters are structured in terms of length if important to many readers. They usually do not want to read a short 1000 word chapter followed by a 7,000 word chapter. People have busy lives, they pick up and put down books. They read on the train, or for half an hour before a tv show starts. They want to read the segments of it knowing they can pick it up and put it down at a convenient point in the story. Different authors break the book up in different ways. Many books just use numbers to separate the chapters. There is nothing wrong with this, it keeps the focus on the story. It just gives convenient breathing points in the story. Dividing the chapters up in any other way is not necessary for them. Others e.g. George R. R. Martin in his Game of Thrones books, use character names. This is important in these books because there are a lot of characters, and the chapter name is a device to immediately tell you which character, point of view, and story that you are following.

Other books use titles, which I find an interesting approach, because if done well, it can point your brain into a specific direction. I really don’t know how much notice most readers take of this. Many likely just leap into the next part of the story. It could temporarily take you out of the story. It depends on the story as to whether or not this is a good thing. I see the same thing with chapters which have a quote, prior to the story continuing. Some of these I read, others I don’t. I suppose it can add a layer, or take your thoughts in a different direction if you read it and take it in, but as with chapter titles, it can briefly jump you out of the story. I wonder if that is a bad thing or not. Given that you have taken a breather from the previous chapter, why not? The reader can ignore it if he or she so wishes, and continue on with the main text. I quite like the way some tv shows use titles to name episodes, many HBO, AMC,  and Showtime shows do this. Sometimes the title is made up, other times it comes from a specific line of dialogue in the episode, which loosely, and sometimes cleverly, sums up either what the episode is about, or the theme of the episode is about.

Would using the same technique and putting “clever” titles on a chapter actually be a clever thing to do? I’m tempted to do this with my current project. It might make the chapter headings more interesting. Would it be a distraction? Maybe, but if it really doesn’t work, it could easily be changed for numbers. You could apply the same logic to book segments. Some authors like to break the novel up into sections or parts containing a group of chapters. The novel might be changing track, or a significant point has been gotten to, so the chapters are grouped together in a separate section. It is a bit like books within books, a technique often used in mysteries or thrillers, or epic voyages. These could be labelled with numbers, titles, with either plus a quote, or clever titles.

So how a writer uses a title could be important to how the work progresses, but is also important to the reader. How we use chapter or segment headings can be done in a number of ways, but it ought to suit the story and the pacing of the story, how and when it should be broken up or paused. Get these right and it helps the reader connect with the work a little more, and sets them on the journey to that other place.

So how much importance do you place on a project title whilst working on the project? Do you need it before or during, or afterwards? How do you use chapter headings, and how important is the format of these to you?

N.B. This weekend, I’m heading off to another family reunion from the other side of my wife’s family. I may be a little late in getting to read and respond to comments.

Lexicon word of the day: insipid.


14 comments on “Novel titles and chapter headings

  1. For me it depends. Sometimes I find it helpful to have at least a working title for chapters or sections, because it gives me something to focus on. But I don’t think they’re necessary. Similarly, when I read novels, sometimes the chapter titles are helpful or entertaining, sometimes they’re sort of irrelevant. Overall I think the writing itself ends up dictating it.

    • Elliot says:

      I think on the writing side it is about mental focus and whether you need it. I cannot decide how much they actually add to a book in most instances.

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    The titles for my two WIPs have been through several iterations. I usually started with a “working title” that isn’t very helpful, but I need a folder/project name for the files. So one was “Character Study” and the other was “Madeleine and Jack.” Not the kinds of titles that would make it past an agent or editor.

    I go with simple chapter numbers. In part, my creativity doesn’t extend to thinking up 20 or 30 “meaningful” phrases to describe the chapters. And I think if a writer is going to use them, they should be meaningful to the reader.

    We all have our different personal views about how much to share about our WIPs. And I don’t think there’s one right answer. I would stay away from putting too many samples up or serializing the book on a blog/website before publishing. But for me, I like to know some of the basics about the works of writers I follow. And I like to give non-writers a hint of what my books will be. That way they can decide if they might want to follow the blog or buy the books when their published.

    Of course, if I go the traditional route, Death Out of Time and Summer at the Crossroads could end up with very different titles if the press so decrees!

    • Elliot says:

      Very interesting points and I pretty much agree with you. I use a working title as well, in the same way. The chapter numbers also makes sense.

      I don’t think I’m much for sharing a work in progress, maybe a summary but not much until it is finished. If I have to market a self published work, then I will put more effort in. If I can get in the traditional route, I’ll be a lot more amiable to a different title.

      Thanks for the big reply, it is always useful to read what other writers think.

  3. robincoyle says:

    My title appeared the same moment the idea for my novel appeared.

  4. As a reader I like 3-5 page chapters not necessarily with titles. It allows me to stop with a sense of completeness at that stage of the novel as opposed to anywhere in a 25+ page chapter.

    • Elliot says:

      I read David Hewson’s guide to Scrivener (writing software) and he makes reference to writing chapters with a word target in mind which I think was around 1,800 words. He might go over or under but it will be in that ballpark. In his experience, that chapter length works well and allows the reader to know how long a chapter will be. Plus it is a convenient length, not too long.

  5. I HAVE to have a title to begin with, not sure why though lol

    I’ve been told that titles for chapters is very old fashioned….hmmmmm…..I quite like it though 😉


    • Elliot says:

      I just use a rough working title, but to be practical, e.g. naming files and folders on the laptop.

      I think “old fashioned” is a good description for it. It is not wrong, it is just not the common thing right now. But then it could be again 🙂

      • That’s true, things go around and come around don’t they. A bit like Prologues are out of favour… the moment 😉


      • Elliot says:

        I know. I like the idea of learning lots of aspects about writing, and if you can use it, obviously that is also useful. However some of the trends can be slightly annoying and take away a little of the magic, when someone is stating, it must be like this, because that is the current thing. If the whole thing works, then it works, and it will transcend the formatting and choice inclusions.

        On the other hand, things shouldn’t be added just for the sake of it.

feed the brain:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s