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June 25, 2020

Chapter Breaks & Titles: What Are Our Options?

Open book pages with text: Making Our Chapters Count

For all the blog posts and books about writing out in the world, there are comparatively few about chapters specifically. This can be surprising to new writers, as chapters form the backbone of our understanding of stories from our lifetime’s perspective as readers. *smile*

Recently, subscriber Laura L. emailed me with a great question about chapters:

“How does one come up with clever names for the chapters? I’ve seen some novels that are so clever in the way they allude to the story but have no clue how to do it– NOR do I know WHEN to end the story to create chapters.”

I’ve written only one story with chapter titles (and I don’t know yet if I’ll keep them when I publish it), so I’m far from an expert. But let’s see if we can come up with some helpful suggestions for how to structure chapters and ideas for how to name them.

Fiction Chapters 101

In non-fiction, chapter breaks are usually driven by topic. One chapter is about A and another chapter is about Q. But things aren’t as clear cut with fiction.

In fact, the most common question I’ve seen about chapters is “How long should a chapter be?” How do we decide on chapter length when there’s no non-fiction style change in topic, as our book is all one coherent story (we hope)?

However, before answering that question, we might first need to understand why stories are broken into chapters at all.

What’s the Point of Chapter Breaks?

The point of a chapter in fiction is to create a visual break that can signal a shift to readers. That shift might be from one scene or point of view (POV) to another, or it might be an emotional shift (like a mini-cliffhanger) that we want to give readers room to process.

At the same time, the visual break and sense of turning pages faster (due to the half-page formatting) can make our story’s pace feel faster. The feeling of an increased story’s pace can be especially strong if emotional anticipation is built up by the break.

In addition, the break between chapters or scenes allows us to skip the boring parts of our story, such as when a character sleeps or travels. And from a reader perspective, breaks provide the opportunity to pause reading without feeling like a story intermission is happening mid-conversation.

So What Is the “Right” Length for a Chapter?

The answer to that question about chapter length is: “It depends.” And that answer reveals part of the problem with trying to teach a writer how to handle chapters. *smile*

The “right” answer for how long our chapters should be depends on our story and its emotional hooks (those emotional cliffhangers, reveals, questions, or touchpoints we want to emphasize). In addition, the “right” answer can depend on our genre, pacing, voice, style, etc.

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An action story might tend toward shorter chapters, just to keep up the sense of a fast pace, while a literary story might have longer chapters or use a mix of lengths. Or a story with frequent POV shifts might keep chapters short so the focus of any one chapter doesn’t feel scattered by going back and forth several times between different POV scenes.

Personally, a chapter of 8-10 pages of double-spaced Times New Roman feels about “right” to me, but I’ve gone as short as 4 pages and as long as about 14 pages due to the needs of my story at each scene. And of course, my opinion is just an opinion, as I’ve seen plenty of advice that calls 20 pages a standard or default length, while others talk about a 2000-5000 word count per chapter.

Well-known published authors have made stories work with chapters of a single page or line—or stories with no chapter breaks at all. Our voice, story, style, and genre can all play a part on what feels “right” to us. In other words, how we handle chapter breaks is completely subjective.

When Should We Structure Chapter Breaks?

As I’ve written about before, while some writers draft with chapter breaks in mind, others save the step of breaking their story into chapters for one of the last steps and instead focus on drafting in scenes. Again, there’s no wrong answer.

Depending on our drafting style, our story might naturally break into chapters with scene or POV changes. Or we might wait until our editing process to see where emotional beats land that we want to emphasize.

As mentioned above, one purpose of chapter breaks is to let readers process an emotional shift. So we might want to wait until our editing step to see where we want those dun-dun-duns to increase emotions.

Whether we break chapters for a utilitarian reason like a scene or point of view change, or for an emotional reason like a question or reveal, we usually want to end on a hook to make readers want to continue after the break. That said, some writers want their story to flow relatively uninterrupted from one chapter to another, so chapter breaks are only as important as we make them.

Should We Use Chapter Titles?

Now let’s get into the other piece of Laura’s question. Should we title our chapters, and if so, how do we do it?

Should we title our chapters, and if so, how? Click To Tweet

Obviously, most stories have a label of Chapter 1 or Two or Chapter III at the start of each chapter. Beyond that, do our chapters need a title?

Not really. Whether we add an actual chapter title in addition to the chapter number is completely up to us.

Some genres use chapter titles more than others, and some story styles use chapter titles more than others. For example, a comedy story might use chapter titles just for an opportunity to add another humorous line, or a timeline-focused story might use timestamps as chapter titles.

5 Ways to Brainstorm Chapter Titles

If we decide to title our chapters, we first might want to think about our goals: Why do we want to title our chapters? Once we know that, we’ll have a better idea of what our options are, and we might have more success coming up with ideas.

Do we want to title our chapters to… (and more than one reason might apply)

#1: Provide Information

Sometimes we just want to convey information to readers with our title. For example, we might title with a date or location or timestamp.

With first-person dual-POV stories, authors usually include the name of the viewpoint character as the chapter title. Otherwise, readers wouldn’t know who the “I” of the chapter is, especially as the POV can change from chapter to chapter.

#2: Make Promises

Many stories with chapter titles want to reassure readers that the story will be satisfying. So the chapter title might punch up the style, such as taking the opportunity to add an extra joke to a comedy or allude to how the story will fulfill the “promise of the premise.”

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For example, in an absurdist comedy, the title might hint at how the coming chapter fulfills the absurdist “promise,” such as with a line like: The One Where She’s Abducted by Friendly Aliens. Or in an action story, a reference to interesting events in the title will let readers know the story will get to that interesting place in just a few pages.

#3: Intrigue Readers

Sometimes, especially at the start of a book, we might want our chapter titles to be another enticement for a reader to start reading our story. Or an intriguing or mysterious chapter title can give readers a reason to keep reading our story after a chapter break.

These chapter titles might be similar to book titles and work best if our chapters are each mini-stories with a single focus. For example, an intriguing chapter title might be something like: The Other Side of Death. What does that mean? Readers might read on to find out.

#4: Reinforce Ideas

Chapter titles can also be used to reinforce ideas from our story. Stories using this approach might choose titles that emphasize the theme, such as highlighting perspectives of justice, or titles could be used to focus on a character’s motivation.

Stories with a unique setting or story world might use chapter titles of setting/world terminology. For example, a submarine-set story might reinforce the setting with titles like Battle Stations or Dive or Zero Bubble. Or a story about a spy might use chapter titles to act as reports to their handler, such as Report: The Russian Incident.

#5: Increase Tension

Some stories use chapter titles to hint at events to increase tension or dread. We might think of the character’s goal for the chapter for ideas on chapter titles, or we might think about how we can allude to plot events or something revealed or discovered in the chapter without giving too much away.

In other words, we want to give readers a tease of something to anticipate, but we might want to leave out the context that could spoil the plot. For example, we wouldn’t want a chapter title of something like: The Death of Susan. However, we could use something like: An Unexpected Death.

Chapter Title Pros

Obviously, those five ideas above are five ways that chapter titles could add to our story. And that’s what we want, as there’s no purpose to chapter titles if they don’t add to or enhance our storytelling.

In addition to intriguing readers, increasing tension, and all those other pros of chapter titles, the titles can also act as milestones for readers, helping them keep chapters and events straight. Similarly, some writers use chapter titles to help them focus on an idea or story goal while drafting.

Chapter Title Cons

If we decide to use chapter titles, one key “guideline” is to be consistent with the format. For example, if our first few chapter titles start out with a “The One Where She…” format, all the chapters should probably follow that same format.

In addition to that limitation, there are several cons to using chapter titles as well:

  • Our chapter titles could give too much away for upcoming plot events, acting as spoilers.
  • Chapter titles can be hard to think up, discouraging us, or they can seem boring, discouraging readers.
  • Our chapter titles could “feel” meaningful but not have obvious meaning to readers, even after they read the chapter, causing them to get distracted at the end of each chapter by trying to make sense of its title.
  • Some chapters might work best with one format, while other chapters work best with a different format, yet we need to be consistent.
  • Coming up with titles can be a lot of work for something that many readers don’t notice—or don’t even read.
  • Our chapters could be on the short end, so we’d need to come up with a lot of titles (this might be why chapter titles seem to be more common with longer chapters *smile*).
  • The subtext of using anything more than chapter numbers tells readers that our chapters are special, so our story needs to fulfill that expectation.
  • Chapter titles that hint at things the viewpoint characters don’t know can disrupt our story’s POV, especially if we write in deep POV, as an omniscient narrator style can’t be used to share the information.
  • Chapter titles that allude to future events can undermine our intentions if we use the “literary” past tense.

With all those cons, we might wonder if we should include chapter titles. Only we can decide what’s right for our story, but as I mentioned above, there’s no point in including them if they don’t add to our story in some way. *smile*

10 Year Blogiversary Reminder!

My blogiversary is coming up mid-July, and that means 2 things:

As I announced last week, after 1000+ posts and ten years of publishing articles every Tuesday and Thursday, I’m giving myself the gift of an irregular schedule. So this is a great time to make sure you’re signed up for my blog-post newsletter so you don’t miss any of my new scheduled-when-I-feel-like-it posts! 😉

My blogiversary also means that it’s time to enter my 10th Annual Blogiversary Contest! The more comments we get on that post, the more winners we’ll have. 😀

Have you enjoyed chapter titles in stories before? If not, why not? If yes, what made them enjoyable, or how did they enhance the story? Have you included chapter titles in any of your stories before, and if so, why? Can you think of any other insights or advice about chapter titles?

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Deborah Makarios

I usually have 15 to 16 chapters in a 85-100k word book. But I also have section breaks within the chapters, which are marked with little symbols tied in to the story (for The Wound of Words, a snowflake, for example).

Chapter titles are like any title: frustrating when you can’t find the right one and elating when you do. (I am particularly fond of the fourth chapter in Restoration Day, titled ‘Chemistry’ – its double layer of meaning is aesthetically satisfying.) I tend to go for something which alludes to the content of what follows – ‘Out of the Frying Pan’, say, or ‘Blessing and Curse’ – without giving specific details.

But good titles can be hard to come by – The Wound of Words has two chapter titles which were (a beta reader informed me) previously used by Tolkien.

Kassandra Lamb

A timely topic for me. I’m editing a memoir I ghostwrote for a young man. He had chapter titles in his original (very disorganized) text. I changed some of them and also added some chapter breaks, so I had to come up with new titles. With the points from this post in mind, I will be going back through those titles asking the question: do these titles add to the story?

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great advice!
I would only add that I tend to make a chapter a scene, and I dislike chapters that break the scene in two; especially if the first one ends on a ‘plot twist line’ and in the next chapter the conversation continues exactly as before I turned the page. If your scene is getting a bit long, think of another way to stage it or break the conversation between POV characters or times of day.

Bill Cokas

You’re right, Jami–I’ve never seen this addressed anywhere, and thanks to your list of pro(!) and cons, I’ve decided they’d be distracting and do more harm than good. I was torn because I think I could come up with them fairly easily, but they would end up having the effect of saying “Hey, I’m a story! Excuse me while I interrupt the action!”

Dawn

When I read other books, I don’t usually bother reading the titles. So it’s probably odd that I have named my chapters. But I didn’t do this so much for the reader as I did for myself. When I want to go back to a scene for editing, I want to try to remember which scene it was without having to search through a bunch of chapters.

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