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So, I'm in the process of writing a Sci-fi novel, and I use a website to upload chapters before I complete it. On the website, I use chapter titles simply because "RE Lavender has just updated Faces, Names, and Memories, Chapter 41 - Way Out." looks more interesting and distinguished on my feed then "RE Lavender has just updated Faces, Names, and Memories, Chapter 41." So far, I've kept the table of contents and the chapter titles, but I'm debating whether or not to leave them in the print copy. In another of the stories I've working on, using the same website, I've used the chapter titles online, but not in the working document.

I was wondering if anyone could provide some insight on whether, in a work of fiction, chapter titles contribute a lot to book, or if having a table of contents is just annoying and unorthodox.

I read the answers here. But, this didn't provide the detail I needed pertaining specifically to why someone would put chapter titles and what the benefits and disadvantages of putting them would be.

This website provided some reasons one could use chapter titles, but I'm looking to see if there are any other purposes to keeping them. If not I'll most likely omit them entirely.

Any assistance someone could provide is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  • Why omit titles? Your two links both give functional reasons for the audience to have them IMHO. – Bookeater Jul 18 '16 at 18:58
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    One author that I read, Diana Gabaldon, often makes historical or literary allusions in her chapter titles that would not make sense for the narrator to directly state but add a lot to the story. – vpn Jul 21 '16 at 1:17
  • One on my favorite authors, Michael Crichton, used chapter titles in his books to great effect. – CJ Cornell Jul 23 '16 at 0:06
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Chapter titles which aren't used as orientation sort of delineate the story: Potions Class, The Quidditch Match, A Long-Expected Party, The Tower of Cirith Ungol. They are a distillation, not even a précis but a suggestion, of what's coming.

The question is whether you feel the reader needs this sort of narrative flag in the TOC and/or at the beginning of each chapter. Does the description add to the experience or does it feel childish? Ask a bunch of your beta readers. Read many books in your genre. See what other writers are doing, and see if you agree or disagree.

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I think chapter titles are one of the elements that contributes to the sense of a strong narrative voice -- that is, the sense that there is a narrator telling the story. This style is somewhat unfashionable today. Many authors like to create the sense of a stream of consciousness narration or to suppress the voice of the narrator in favor of the voice of the character.

Injecting titles into the narrative stream has the effect of announcing that a story is being told. Having simply a number or even just a blank space creates more a neutral beat.

But while the narrative voice is somewhat out of fashion, some of the most popular books today, including those from which Lauren Ipsum takes examples, do have a very definite narrative voice.

I'm not saying this is a particularly strong effect, or even a deliberate one, but it seems consistent based on pulling a number of titles off my shelves. I particularly note that titles are more common in children's books than in adult books, and children's books tend to have a more distinct narrative voice.

  • This is a very good point. I didn't want to harp too much on children's/YA books vs. adult in my answer, because I couldn't put my finger on why the division was falling that way, but this is exactly right. Stories with chapter titles tend to be "tales being told by a teller," rather than something you happen to be witnessing through a camera lens. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 18 '16 at 23:20
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In a work of non-fiction, a table of contents with chapter titles helps the reader find specific information he may want and see where the book is going. Like if I'm looking for information about World War 2, I might open a history book and scan chapter titles for something about World War 2. Or if I open a math book and scan the chapter titles I might see a title that says "Basics of Calculus" and then I say to myself, Okay, yes indeed this book does discuss calculus.

This is exactly the reason why many, probably most, fiction books do NOT have chapter titles. If I open, say, a novel about a love triangle and the whole point of the book is that Alice is torn between whether she wants to marry Bob or Charlie, if I look at the table of contents and see that the last chapter is titled "Alice and Charlie's Wedding", well, that would rather ruin any suspense. Of course that's an extreme case, but chapter titles could give things away in more subtle ways. In a story about the hero searching for treasure, if I see that there's a chapter called "Egypt" and he finds that it's not there, and then there's a chapter called "Sudan" and it's not there either, and then I start the chapter called "Ethiopia", and I see in the table of contents that this is followed by chapters called "Kenya" and "Madagascar" and then "Returning Home", I think I'd guess that he won't find the treasure in Ethiopia or Kenya either. Looking at titles of chapters we haven't read tells us something about the "future" that the characters don't know.

You could, of course, have chapter titles that are so vague that they tell the reader nothing. But then, why bother?

Not to say that chapter titles are never appropriate in a work of fiction. In a book made up of essentially independent stories, like a story about a detective where he solves ten crimes but each is pretty much independent of the others, chapter titles wouldn't give away anything, and if the titles are interesting, they may encourage the reader to want to get to that chapter.

I suppose you could have deliberately deceptive chapter titles. Like in my love triangle story example, maybe the last chapter is "Marriage With Charlie", but when we get there it turns out that Charlie is marrying somebody else and Alice then runs off with Bob. In general I'd think that would be a lame trick to pull on the reader, but like so many things in writing, if done well, it could be amusing.

You might be able to come up with chapter titles that are vague enough that they don't give anything away, but interesting enough that the reader sees them as something to look forward to.

Children's stories have chapter titles more often because they usually don't have a lot of dramatic tension. When I see a chapter title of, "In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Caught in a Tight Place", I don't usually think, "Oh, so I guess Tigger does NOT kill Winnie the Pooh in this chapter, because he's still alive for the next one."

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    I'd suggest it's possible to have a give - away title, if the reader doesn't know the give - away. If that makes sense (an example from HP: "Sectumsempra". Now we know he's gonna finally use the spell, but we don't know what it does until the end of it). Seems like a middle ground between ruining the plot and "why bother". What would your opinion be on chapters like that? :) – Mac Cooper Jul 21 '16 at 20:01
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    I'd put that in the category of "vague enough that they don't give anything away but interesting enough to ... be interesting". Done well it could be good, but I think it would be hard to do well. Unless you have a flair for it and can rattle them off, a lot of work for no real purpose. I'm sure you could find examples where it is done well and adds to the book, but I think they're rare. If you have good ideas for such chapter titles, great, go ahead and use them. But I wouldn't spend weeks trying to come up with them. Because in the end, I don't think the reader will much care. – Jay Jul 22 '16 at 4:12
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Chapter titles can work for you or they can do nothing.

Numbered chapters only give your readers an idea of what is an average length of a chapter in relation to the total number of pages in your book and offer them a break from the pace of the narration, because one has to turn a page to get to the next one.

You can name your chapters any way you wish if you think it helps to keep the reader interested in your story. You can have them named and numbered, too.

Chapter names do not have to be descriptive to the point of spoiling the mystery element of your story, if it has one, and they can be even deceptive to a certain degree, but only if you can imbue them with a subtle double-meaning, making sure that your reader says 'ahh... that's what happened? nice...' (top of the head oversimplified example: your hero is captured, imprisoned and sentenced to death; next chapter is named Execution, where he miraculously escapes, sneaks up on the villain who is getting ready to enjoy the spectacle, accuses him of being criminally bad guy and executes him instead).

You can use date or timestamps (as it was mentioned elsewhere) is the names of the chapters, if the timeline is important to the story and to elevate the sense of urgency of what is happening. If there is a time bomb ticking, you can use the countdown markers ( 4 hours to big boom, 3 hours to big boom, etc.)

George R. R. Martin names the chapters of his Song of Ice and Fire by the POV character. He has many, different in each chapter, and this naming convention really helps to understand whose story you are about to switch to.

If your story is a quest (as it was mentioned as well), you can title your chapters by the names of places your character(s) travel to, if you wish.

There is no recipe; it is all up to you...

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I like to use chapter titles while I write, as a minimal outline, to keep track of the sequence of events in the story. Typical chapter titles for me look like:

(1) Boarding the Lifeboat
(2) Saying Goodbye
(3) Party at the Chinese Embassy
(4) Driving Off a Cliff

They work for me as an author, keeping track of my story, but they're terrible for readers, because they summarize the events of the chapter before the reader has a chance to actually read those details for herself.

So when I export my final manuscript, I strongly prefer to just use numerical chapter titles.

But having said that, if my chapter titles were less utilitarian and a bit more poetic, I'd be happy to include them in the final output.

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A table of contents is helpful guide to any reader that wants to backtrack to a certain point in the story, perhaps to remind themselves how a certain event occurred, or see again how a particular character got to be wherever they are, how they look, etc. Not to mention it's also great for when you want to find and reread your favorite part of a book.

In my experience, tables of contents have never been a nuisance and chapter titles have always excited me, ignited my curiosity, charmed me, and even made me laugh. Chapter titles are unique to each author, and I think they add character to the book.

However, neither feature in question is a necessity.

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