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I've had several people ask me why my fiction story does not have a table of contents. I never really thought about it, seeing as plenty of fiction stories do not have one either. Is a table of contents mandatory or 'traditional' in fictional writing? Or is this like other writing rules where it can be broken based on different author style?

I am self-publishing, so I do not have an agent or publisher telling me what they want for the book. My last editor did not seem surprised that my story did not have a table of contents either, so I am looking for an official stance on this, or a reputable source detailing what is expected in this type of writing. Are there pro's and con's to each way?

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    Have you ever seen a successful book without a table of contents? If you have, then it is clearly not mandatory. – corsiKa Sep 20 '17 at 20:23
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    @corsiKa Mandatory was not the correct word for this question. Perhaps 'expected', 'suggested', or 'necessary' ? I'm not sure what would be best, but I am open to edits on this question title. – Jerad Meterko Sep 20 '17 at 20:56
  • I read some books that don't have a table of contents. – Aspen the Artist and Author Oct 18 '17 at 21:02
  • Anecdotally, I flicked through my Harry Potter books a little while back to answer a question on SciFi.SE, and was quite surprised to find that none of them had tables of contents. – F1Krazy May 27 at 20:49
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Starting around the 1920's dust jackets started to get decorative and became a place where you could market the book. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_jacket#Oldest_dust_jackets) That function has now migrated to the back page of the paperback. There is no place to put marketing material on the cover of a hardback book (though there are a few hardback formats that are smooth and printable these days).

Before the 1920's hardbound books had highly decorated covers and the dust jackets were plainer and were mostly discarded by bookstore before being put on the shelf.

Given this, it seems reasonable to speculate that the reason for a table of content in a novel was as a way to market the book by telling the reader what to expect inside. In support of this we should note that many 19th century TOCs included a synopsis of each chapter as well as the title.

Once books had decorative dust jackets or printable back covers, there was another place to tell the reader what the book was about. Conventions of the form are slow to die, but TOCs in novels seem to have been fading away over the last century as they serve no real purpose for the modern reader.

Clearly it is permissible and, indeed, conventional, to omit them today.

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    Entirely speculation, but an interesting one. – T.E.D. Sep 20 '17 at 14:18
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    Not to mention the potential downsides of a table of contents. Today's readers demand being surprised. Even the chapter titles can be a spoiler! – corsiKa Sep 20 '17 at 20:24
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    @corsiKa The very best chapter titles are evocative before you've read a chapter, but only really meaningful after you've read it. It's an art unto itself. – Jedediah May 27 at 18:17
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I've seen many novels with a table of contents, and many without. Whether it matters depends more on how you want to structure things, than on any actual rule.

I've also seen novels with no actual chapters, just tens of thousands of words all in a row (broken into paragraphs, of course) -- and novels with chapters as short as half a page.

What works is dependent on what works for your story.

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No. they are not. I personally find them quaint and assume the author is old when I see them.

I believe the idea of sections in fantasy has also percolated through the genre. Sometimes a fantasy novel will have three sections, which could be called 'beginning middle and end' but are usually given more descriptive names. Each section has its own set of chapters. I find these unnecessary, but structurally I understand why they are sometimes there. They help the reader understand that the book is going to take a new course now, and character voices, pacing, or other items may change.

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  • “assume the author is old”: in professional, non-self-publishing editions this is rarely decided by the author. – DaG Sep 20 '17 at 22:06
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I've never read a fiction book and expected a table of contents. Also some of my favorite books have no table of contents nor chapter titles. So from a reader's viewpoint I see no flaw in not having a table of contents.

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Although I do not feel it is required to use a Table of Contents, I will suggest that it has been helpful for me in structuring. Also, I love that if I am working on my manuscript and I think of something that I want to go back to, I can go to my TOC and click on a page number and find the area I'm concerned with very quickly. So, even if you consider using a TOC just for your manuscript to use it as a helpful tool for your own purposes, it could be deleted afterwards before going to print.

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Whatever works best.

If your chapters have names, it might be good (but isn't necessary).

With chapters that are numbered, the Contents page might look a bit weird.

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  • This answer made me realize that a TOC for Forward the Mage (which has cartoonishly verbose chapter titles) would be hilarious, and a short-story in and of itself. – T.E.D. Sep 20 '17 at 14:31
  • Not “would be”, but “is”: baencd.freedoors.org/Books/Forward%20the%20Mage/… And it is quite long in itself... – DaG Sep 20 '17 at 22:08
  • @DaG - You posted the same URL I did. I found how to get there though: Hint to readers: Either click the link in this comment, or go to the upper-right corner of that web page and click the "Contents" link. – T.E.D. Sep 21 '17 at 17:56
  • Ah, ok, sorry, @T.E.D., now I see that it doesn't points directly to the TOC. – DaG Sep 21 '17 at 19:54
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    @DaG - Not entirely your fault. Their website does something wonky with the URL after you click on it., and sets it back to the ebook's main page. Your heart was clearly in the right place. :-) – T.E.D. Sep 21 '17 at 20:25
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I've seen many novels that don't have a Table of Contents.

In a non-fiction book, it makes a lot of sense to have a TOC. Someone might want to skip to the part that is of interest to him right now. If, say, I was searching for information about the Battle of Gettysburg, I might open a book called "History of the Civil War" and look for a chapter whose title said something about Gettysburg.

In a novel, a TOC with descriptive chapter titles might give away what's going to happen, spoiling the story. To take a ridiculous extreme, a murder mystery with a TOC labeling the last chapter, "George confesses to the murder" would likely ruin the story for anyone who looked at the TOC before reading the book.

That's not likely to be a problem in a non-fiction book. Non-fiction books don't generally have surprise endings. Like I don't get to the end of an astronomy book and say, "Oh, wow, what a neat twist! Pluto turned out to not be a planet after all!"

Because of this, many novels don't give their chapters names but just numbers. So a TOC would just be "Chapter 1 ... page 1, Chapter 2 ... page 27", etc, which would likely be pretty useless.

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  • Of course, just because George confesses to the murder doesn't mean he's the murderer. – celtschk Sep 22 '19 at 14:12
  • @celtschk True. I suppose I should have said, "The brilliant detective proves that George is the murderer" – Jay Sep 22 '19 at 19:50

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