Chapter titles won’t magically make your story a bestseller, but they can give your novel extra depth. Here are 6 great reasons to use chapter titles.
1. They show off your creativity
Chapter titles are an excellent chance to show off your wordsmithing. Creative, interesting and fitting use of chapter titles will set stories apart. For example, The Shipping News, a story with strong maritime elements, uses knot-related chapter titles like “strangle knot,” “love knot” and “a rolling hitch.”
Having interesting chapter titles is also helps create a good beginning to your story. Combined with a gripping story title, an interesting opening chapter title (as opposed to ‘chapter 1’) gives you more chance to hook readers and show them why your novel is a special snowflake.
2. They establish theme
Chapter titles are a golden opportunity to establish the mood, tone and atmosphere of the following chapter. Light-hearted, jokey and comedic titles will set a different tone to gloomy, dark and despairing titles, to give one example. For instance, a chapter titled ‘the pram on the cliff’s edge’ could serve as a metaphor for your hero’s captivating struggle to save their kidnapped son.
As a side note, this can be a good way to write a chapter title if you’re stuck! By brainstorming your chapter’s tone/theme/mood of your chapter, you’ll have a thematically resonant pool of phrases – hopefully letting you pick a good title.
3. They can foreshadow …
A chapter titled ‘A Death in the Family’ makes readers expect a character’s going to shuffle off this mortal coil, pronto. While your foreshadowing doesn’t have to be this blatant, chapter titles do provide a unique, non-narrative (i.e. external to the story) means to set up reader expectations.
4. … And they can misdirect
The flip side of foreshadowing is misdirection. Maybe ‘A Death in the Family’ chapter isn’t about an actual death, but about a man declaring his hatred for his brother. An even sneakier way to use this technique is to ‘foreshadow’ something readers will interpret one way … but it really means something else instead. Either way, chapter titles let you program readers to expect something. Whether you give them what they expect – or serve up a dish of something completely different – is up to you, the almighty author.
5. They make your chapters more memorable
No one says ‘hey, remember how cool chapter twelve was?’ Sure, if your chapter about a cybernetic cockatoo swooping tourists in the countryside was a ripper, readers will remember it – but they won’t have a nice, snugly-fitting container to store this experience in. That’s what your chapter title is: a container to act as shorthand for readers’ memories. Think, for example, how much better it sounds to say ‘remember that Rampage of the Cyber-Cockatoo chapter?’ compared to the formless ‘remember chapter twelve?’
6. They make readers curious
An interesting, gripping and provoking chapter title spurs readers to keep reading. In the same way your story’s title made readers want to pick it up, each chapter title is a chance to re-hook readers, encouring them to keep your novel in front of them as the night’s hours tick away.
Chapter titles aren’t for everyone. Done poorly, they can distract readers from your story. However, chapter titles open up countless creative possibilities, give you another narrative tool and let you show off your writerly flair. Give it a shot!
What are your thoughts on chapter titles? Do you use chapter titles in your novel? What are some good reasons to not use chapter titles? I’d love to hear how you deal with them!