I’m in the great mists of revision and I’m wondering about whether to title my chapters or not.
I realize this is, to a large degree, a matter of choice. Still, there must be benefits and drawbacks. If I go to my middle school library shelves, I can find examples of both. The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan have chapter titles that definitely added to the reading experience. My daughters and I laughed over many of them. Lish McBride’s books, Hold me closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone also have chapter titles. All of hers are titles or phrases from old songs–mostly from my era so I loved them. Don’t know that my students get the connection, but my daughter still found them amusing, so I would still call that a plus.
Of course, being a librarian, I always believe I should research an issue, see what others have to say about it. So I did a search on Google (of course), and it pulled up a link to the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is a great site for getting professional information about writing. It gave some great examples (and not YA examples) of how writers have titles chapters. And it ended with this:
So while titles are certainly not necessary—many novels don’t have them—they have the potential to create unity or add another layer to the reading experience. If you use them, make sure they’re contributing in a meaningful way. The reader will be looking for associations.
At least this gave me something to base my decision on. Could I title my chapters in such a way that they add to the reading experience? If not, then I probably shouldn’t title them — after all, I found many websites listed on google where writers talked about how they hated chapter titles that “gave things away.”
Not yet sure about what I wanted to do, I picked up Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer. When I skimmed the Table of Contents (yup, she titled her chapters–but it is a non-fiction book which does make a difference), I found a chapter called Details. It starts off by telling of a story the author had been told about a class where writers learned to tell their true life stories more effectively. The first volunteer tells the story of how she lost a leg to a bout of childhood cancer, but went on to become a world-class skier. The second volunteer waited until the room was silent and then pronounced, “in a sort of growl, a graphic term for a sex act that, he said, he liked to do with his wife.” His story was so well told, that even though it was pornographic and downright aggressive, the audience hardly even breathed. On the third day of class, the one-legged woman asked if she could tell another story. She said it was a story she’d never told anyone other than her therapist. With that, she proceeded to tell the class how she’d lied about how she lost her leg. It was because she’d gotten bit by a cat and the wound had turned gangrenous. The woman told it with unwavering conviction and there wasn’t one person in the room who didn’t believe every word–the details about the father who was a passionate carnivore and the mother who was a strict vegetarian, how the dad said the smell of the infected wound smelled like the mom’s tofu.
Finally the one-legged woman got to the end of her story. She waited a few beats, and then said she’d invented the story about the cat. The class was shocked, but eventually came around and laughed a bit. All except for the man who’d told the pornographic story. He was so angry he left and never returned.
Now, the whole reason Francine Prose said she included this, is because of something her friend (who’d told her the story) said.
He told me that the whole reason the class believed the woman’s story [ ] was entirely because of the detail about the father’s love for steak and the mother’s passion for tofu. ‘Trust me on this,’ my friend said. ‘God really is in the details.’
Francine Prose goes on to talk about bad liars piling on tons of details, but good liars, adding those single priceless details that make the target relax. (You really should read her book — both readers and writers should.)
And the Verdict is…
But, more to the point, why did I include this story in a post about titling chapters? Because to me, it says that good writing means knowing which details to include, and which to leave out. If I am going to put titles on my chapters, they have to be a detail that makes the book more believable. Otherwise, they are just extraneous.