3 Secret Functions of Your Book’s Chapter Titles

As a writer, you’re already aware of the power of your book’s title to identify its genre, allude to its subject matter, and create that first shiny hook to catch a reader’s eye. A title is your chance to stop the feet or finger of a hungry browser in a bookstore or online and to convince him to enter your story world. But the little string of words on the outside of your book isn’t the only phrase with that power. Your book’s chapter titles present chances to play the game again, with linguistic lures that can keep your audience turning pages way past bedtime.

1. Use Chapter Titles to Attract Your Audience

Names you know play this game well. Lewis Carroll points to Alice’s travails with signposts like: “Down the Rabbit-Hole” and “The Pool of Tears.” With even simpler markers like “Nantucket,” “Chowder,” and “Going Aboard,” Melville showers a bit of salt spray onto many of the openers of his tale of the great white whale.

Moby Dick

Simple strategies like that work well, but there are even trickier games to be played. Annie Proulx uses knot names like “Love Knot,” “Strangle Knot,” and “A Rolling Hitch” to tie her readers to her maritime story of redemption in Newfoundland. And in “The Odds,” Stewart O’Nan underscores his theme of a failed marriage’s last chance for success at a casino by calculating the specific probability of events with chapter titles like: “Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary: 1 in 6.”

These tactics share a common mission to attract readers. But long before your book hits the shelf, chapter titles can play a potent role in shaping it as well.

2. Use Chapter Titles to Find Your Focus

The best-built stories have chapters with a clearly defined mission that works to support its overarching premise. String enough of these together in an organic way that ties cause and effect to escalating tension and you’re well on your way to creating the clean throughline that produces publishable work. The same process of ruthless editing that creates that lean story spine can be used to condense the heart of each chapter to a few key words. Thinking deeply about those words creates focus.

Here’s an example from my novel in progress: Autumn Imago. The story premise is: A loner who has rejected his estranged family to protect himself from the pain of his sister’s death is forced to reunite with them at the scene of that tragedy where he must choose between a life of reconciliation or isolation. Early in the book I present the protagonist’s (Paul’s) potential romantic interest: Cassie, a fellow park ranger.

Paul’s fear of intimacy has him shying away from Cassie when they get too close. Paul’s love of fly-fishing is introduced early on, so the title for this chapter: “Catch and Release” does double-duty in pointing to the story worldand serving as a metaphor for Paul’s emotional reserve. When I write a title like this I can easily proof the chapter’s mission’s relation to my story premise. In this case, establishing Paul’s self-imposed social isolation in “Catch and Release” supports the “loner” identity I’ve referenced at the start of his story arc. That point starts him on the path that leads to his choice of reconciliation or isolation. The mission of the chapter aligns with my premise.

3. Use Chapter Titles to Orient to Your Story World

As you dive deeper into your work, chapter titles can alsoorient you when you’re lost in the story swamp. For me,the writing program Scrivener’s binder structure serves as the compass that contains the cardinal points that help me navigate through my novel. In the screen shot below, you can see my working manuscript copy for “Catch and Release” in the pane to the right. A quick glance to the left shows where that chapter lives within the larger work I’ve outlined. (I’ve expanded each mission message a bit to illustrate these relationships in the yellow boxes shown.)

Scrivener Screen Shot

By defining and proofing the mission of each chapter in the method described above, I’ve created a map in the Scrivener binder that I can quickly scan to review what’s happening before and after the chapter I’m exploring. This reference helps me build the kind of cause and effect relationships that allow each chapter to grow out of, and into, the one before and after it.

Keep Your Chapter Titles Flexible

Of course flexibility is critical to following the strategies outlined above, and that’s another key to harnessing a chapter title’s power. If I craft chapter titles that sum up the heart of the chapter I’m writing, but their message doesn’t align with my premise, I know the chapters need to be rewritten or cut. In the same manner, if my chapter’s position within the storyline I’ve defined presents problems with plausibility or continuity, it may also need to be cut, edited, or simply moved to a spot where it makes more sense.

Finally, beyond a title’s power to attract an audience, focus your work, and keep you oriented within the world of your story, the simple process of boiling down your book into the short phrases that capture its essence burns your tale deeper into your brain with every chapter title you take on. That kind of intimacy with your subject is the hallmark of a seasoned writer. It’s a sure sign you’re creating chapter titles that will live on the tips of many happy readers’ tongues.

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