Monday, July 10, 2006

Chapter titles

Do you notice them when you read a book? Usually I don't, unless it's to check the table of contents when I'm considering a work of nonfiction. Even then the chapter titles are sometimes so clever that they disguise the actual subjects.

I've titled the chapters of two out of the five novels I've finished, as well as two of my three incomplete novels, and in every case there was a system or naming convention.

In Requiem for the Devil, each chapter title was a content-appropriate line from the Requiem mass. Was it pretentious to use Latin? Maybe, but I included an appendix with the entire text of the Requiem and its English translation so people could look it up if they wanted.

In Bad Company, each chapter title is the name of a rock or pop song, again reflecting the content of the upcoming chapter. I kept a balance among decades (40s through 90s) and made sure not to include more than one tune by the same artist.

In Angel's Gambit, an unfinished Requiem sequel, each title was going to be named after a chess term, since the main character was a master player.

And in my most literarily ambitious novel, The Forgetting, Requiem's direct sequel (Beelzebub's tale), the titles formed the first few words of the chapter, as well as reflecting its larger theme or subject. Example:
A candy-eyed teenager

hands us what looks like blue garbage bags as we stand in line for the Maid of the Mist boat tour, the one that takes you right up to the feet of the falls.
Later in the chapter, one of the main characters tells a story of a relationship he had in high school, when it can be assume that he was himself a "candy-eyed teenager." The story isn't prompted by seeing the kid from the first sentence but by an event on the boat itself. The more distant a thematic echo, the less blatant it is.

And a less subtle example:
Three Ivy-League assholes

glare at us over their cans of beer. Marc, who for a moment was frozen on top of me, springs to a sitting position and stares at them with a look of prey.
The rest of the chapter depicts how Beelzebub and his traveling companion kick the crap out of a trio of would-be gay-bashers.

Sigh...I miss that book. Must finish it someday, even if no one else ever reads it.

Back to the original question: what do you think of chapter titles? If you notice them, do they act as spoilers or as tempting hints? If you don't notice them, do you consider them just an indulgence on the author's part?

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14 Comments:

I find it vaguely irritating when chapter titles have something to do with the chapter, because I never read them, even when I've figured out they've got something to do with the chapter, which then causes me to have to go back sometimes and find out WTF that chapter head said, anyway. I like my chapter titles to be 'Chapter One', and other pithy things like that. :) Same with relevant quotes in chapter heads: they'd better not be *critical* to the story, and if they must be there, I prefer them to be entertaining and short. I would never read your literarily ambitious book you've got quoted there. It'd drive me bonkers. :)

-Catie

Posted by: Blogger CE Murphy at 7/10/2006 10:17 AM

I've never used chapter titles, although an instructor in a literary novel course at the University of Washington urged us to all do so.

However, in my "blook" (story blog, blog book...), wherein I'm writing a novel one weekly post at a time, it was necessary to give each episode a title, it seemed. Just numbers didn't promise much interest.

When I copy the espisodes into a document to begin the work of turning it into a novel, I remove the titles and combine episodes to make chapters.

That was fine. My wife (and first reader) was reading the novelized version. And then she went online to catch up on some episodes and discovered the titles.

Turned out that she liked them a lot. Well, I have to admit, some were pretty nifty. Anyway, now I've recast the novel into the original episodes with the titles. And I may not number them, though that's hard to resist.

The story, Death Sucks: On being a vampire kitty-cat, is about 47,000 words along now, so I think I'll reach the end around October. If you're interested, it's at www.vampirekittycat.com

Ray

Posted by: Blogger Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill at 7/10/2006 4:16 PM

I would never read your literarily ambitious book you've got quoted there. It'd drive me bonkers. :)

Catie, Beelzebub is giving you the finger right now for dissing his story, though he personally doesn't read anything but road signs and Sports Illustrated. He'd also like to know if you'd have dinner with him.

Ray, I love Death Sucks! I think you're right about episodes like yours needing titles. I like titles that are funny by themselves.

This made me think of TV episodes that I watch on DVD. I usually don't notice the title until after I've seen the ep. Only then does its significance or humor strike me.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 7/10/2006 4:37 PM

This made me think of TV episodes that I watch on DVD. I usually don't notice the title until after I've seen the ep. Only then does its significance or humor strike me.

Ok, that's funny, 'cause I pay religious attention to tv episode titles. *laugh*

-Catie

Posted by: Blogger CE Murphy at 7/10/2006 5:04 PM

I loved the chapter titles in Requiem. They added a great deal of tension and depth. I suppose it depends on the book. Hmmm....that's non-commital.

Cecilia

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 7/10/2006 7:02 PM

Oh, and I love Bad Company's chapter titles too.

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 7/10/2006 7:04 PM

Thanks, Cecilia. I think chapter titles can add to the atmosphere or reinforce a motif. In the cases of Requiem and Bad Company, which are both musical books, it reminds the reader of the overarching theme. And on a crass commercial level, maybe people will think of my book whenever they hear certain songs on the radio.

Assuming some gorgeous, brilliant editor ever decides to buy it.

But like Catie said, I'd never put crucial information in a chapter heading. It's just an extra touch, like the special features on a DVD. Even the Forgetting usage doesn't count, because you have to read the chapter title in order to read the first sentence. You can't skip it, therefore you can't miss anything.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 7/10/2006 7:28 PM

Do you take issue with newspaper headlines? What about clever tag lines on product boxes? Is this not literary enough? Am I going to get blacklisted from your blog?

By the way, I'm okay with chapter titles. Unless they're terribly annoying.

Andre

Posted by: Anonymous AndreC at 7/10/2006 10:59 PM

See, this is the beauty of blogging. One day out of the sky blue an old friend will just show up and start making fun of you.

Or possibly an old stranger with the same name and initial as an old friend.

Either way, welcome to the blog, Andre--I mean, "andrec"! How've you been?

Prompted by your question, this seems like as good a time as any to pimp one of my favorite blogs, The Sneeze, particularly the section Steve Don't Eat It! in which the blogger reviews various foods that would make the average person sew their mouth shut. He comments on some of the packaging, such as this label for Pickled Pork Rinds:

"There is also a red starburst proudly proclaiming "Nuevo Envase de Vidrio Reusable". Not knowing much Spanish, I could only assume that meant "Oh Crap -- A Jar of Skin!""

Here's one that's not totally disgusting (Urkel-O's cereal). I literally laughed myself into a state of exhaustion.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 7/11/2006 8:09 AM

AndreC, a newspaper headline is meant to grab my attention and make me read the article. It's nothing like a chapter title- if I even see the title, I'm already reading the book.

I rarely if ever notice chapter titles. (I do notice blog post titles- much like newspaper headlines.) If they were the first phrase of the first sentence in a chapter, I would notice them and it wouldn't bother me, because it's the sentence I'm interested in reading. If the chapter titles are enough to bug me, then the book isn't holding my attention; it's not the title's fault.

Posted by: Blogger Sharon GR at 7/11/2006 10:30 AM

I like chapter titles in some books, and not in others. They're generally bad in mysteries, where ANY peep ahead can skew the clues in the reader's favor in a way that makes an end run around the narrative.

I tned not to notice them unless they're intrusive, though -- they're usually better in retrospect. Same with episode titles.

But mostly I'm commenting just to say: AndreC! Where ya been, bro?

Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 7/11/2006 12:35 PM

I think Andrec would be a great character name. It sounds quasi-Romanian.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 7/11/2006 12:48 PM

I liked the chapter titles, even in cases when they give away a portion of the plot, in every book I've enjoyed.

That qualifiier is key. If I didn't enjoy the book, there were probably many issues, chapter titles being the least of them.

I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonimicon now, and I find I'm flipping back to check the chapter title after I'm a page or two in. This is mostly because the chapters to not start on a new page, so the title is less prominent and I'm more likely to brush over it. The key point, though, is that I want to know the chapter title - I always go back if I've missed it.

WRT The Forgetting, I'd read it.

WRT plot points in the title, I've found (again, in books I enjoy) that they enhance the anticipation. Quick example - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - when you see the chapter titled "The Half Blood Prince" you psyched because this is where you find out who he is. Sometimes it's nice to have that little signal that it's all about to come together.

Often, the title of the next chapter is what makes you decide not to put a book down and instead stay up another hour to finish it.

Posted by: Blogger Andrew at 7/11/2006 6:51 PM

Strangely enough, I do like those somewhat quaint chapter headings Neil Gaiman sometimes uses, that say something like "In which a Monica tells the truth, Herman tells a lie, and a lizard fails to sun itself." For some reason, the combination of vagueness and specificity moves me right along.

Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 7/11/2006 9:32 PM

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