FREE Pro Tip #46: About Those Chapter Titles

Horror of horrors, it dawned on me that I’ve been neglecting my obligation as a Big Deal in Children’s Publishing (cough, cough) to hand out FREE WRITING TIPS.

Please forgive the lapse. I realize that you come here for the swag.

I was thinking about chapter titles while in the shower yesterday. It’s a funny thing about showers — it’s where I get my best thinking done. I’ve heard that’s true for others, too. Maybe because it’s the one place where we turn off the social media, the relentless stream of feeds and shiny objects, and for a few minutes tune into our own watery thoughts?

Maybe we should all take more showers.

Or, I guess, sit in quietude as a regular practice.

Anyway . . .

Without really thinking about it all that much, I’ve used a variety of approaches for chapter titles in my books. Pro tip: If you want to be really cool (and who doesn’t?), don’t use titles for your chapters at all! Just number them: 1, 2, 3, etc. This says to the reader, yawn, I couldn’t be bothered. What’s cooler than indifference? I did that in my YA, Before You Go. Very sophisticated. If you want to win A Major Award, this is the recommended technique. (However, it did not work for Before You Go — not even close.)

But isn’t the untitled chapter just a big ripoff? You pay good money for a book, shouldn’t it include complimentary chapter titles for the price, like the warm, freshly baked cookies they give away in the lobby of DoubleTree hotels?

My book The Courage Test is fancy because we spell out (!) the numerals: CHAPTER TWO: THE RIVER OF TIME.

No extra charge.

There’s one device I’ve always gotten a kick out of, which was a convention in 17th- and 18th-century works: the extended title/subtitle that sums up the chapter’s main events. For example, um, let’s see: “In Which Our Hero’s Boat Capsizes — He Fights Off a Deadly Shark Attack — And Becomes Stranded on an Uninhabited Desert Island!

Bonus points if the chapter title, in italic, begins with the words, “In which . . .

While I have not gone that far (yet!), Justin Fisher Declares War! makes liberal use of longer titles. For example: CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Tied Up with Duct Tape and Stuffed into a Broom Closet.

The other thing about the titles in that book is that they all reflect actual dialogue (!) contained in the chapter. For example, CHAPTER EIGHT: Did We Just See One of the Teachers Doing the Funky Chicken?

Somebody actually says that. 

For Jigsaw Jones, my chapter titles are straight forward, falling well within accepted conventions. Easily 93% of all published books use this boring approach, the bland two or three-word summary. Randomly pulling Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space off the shelf, there’s “Room 201” and “Our Solar System” and “The Stakeout” and so on.

Of course, it’s always a Big Plus if you can title a chapter using a reference to pop culture, particularly song lyrics. That’s a pretty standard trick which signals to the reader that the author is “with it” and effortlessly cool in an insidery sort of way. YA is riddled with it. So Chapter 8 is, “A Little Help from My Friends.” Mom or Dad, blearily reading aloud, might get a kick out of that (and I often try to throw ’em a bone). 

Here’s an idea: It might be awesome if an entire book went all-in on that concept, you know what I mean? Every chapter title featuring a snippet of David Bowie lyrics:

 

Chapter 1: We Can Be Heroes

Chapter 2: Hey Babe, You’re Hair’s Alright

Chapter 3: Turn and Face the Strange

Chapter 4: Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

And so on and so forth.

Like most writers, I generally adopt the summary technique in my books. It’s quick, clear, and does the job without any fuss. A lot of times good writing just wants to get out of the way. For my “Scary Tales” books, I seem to have gone with short, dramatic, nearly breathless chapter titles: “The Hunt,” “Full Dark,” “The Chase,” “Captured,” etc.

Who knows? Surely not me!


My upcoming novel, Upstander (May, 2021), is a stand-alone story, but it is also a prequel/sequel to Bystander, featuring the same characters.

For reasons I cannot defend on grammatical grounds, for Bystander I titled every chapter using just one word, lower case, in brackets:

 

1

[ketchup]

2

[pretty]

 

and so on.

 

Upstander picks up that same strategy, subtly connecting the two books:

 

1

[gravel]

2

[triangle]

 

You get the idea.

Wait, you might ask, “Where’s my free pro tip? I’ve traveled all this distance and there’s no free tip?”

Easy there, trust me.

PRO TIP #46: Whatever strategy you employ for your chapter titles, they should be consistent within the world of that book. Each book should have its own logic, its own internal rules and strategies, and that should be reflected in the chapter titles. Or, of course, not!

CONFESSION: I took about 15 minutes with my shelves, leafing through various classic and quasi-popular children’s books. I hoped to find creative examples of chapter titles. It was a huge bust and I got bored after a while, though I did notice that funny books tended to have funny chapter titles (but not always). I did rediscover Half Magic, the 1954 classic by Edward Eager. His book has 8 chapters:

  1. How It Began
  2. What Happened to Their Mother
  3. What Happened to Mark
  4. What Happened to Katherine
  5. What Happened to Martha
  6. What Happened to Jane
  7. How It Ended
  8. How It Began Again

Pretty righteous, I think. Old Eager went the extra yard.

How about you? Can you think of any good examples? 

 

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