What Do Your Chapter Heads Say?

So I’ve been formatting quite a few non-fiction ebooks here lately, and it occurs to me that non-fiction books are doing a lot better with chapter heads than the majority of fiction books do. By that I mean, non-fiction chapter heads tend to give a clue as to what the chapter is about (CHAPTER THREE: The History of Pumpernickel). I just spent a few minutes going through 20 or so non-fiction books within reach of my desk and every single one of them did that. Many dispensed with “CHAPTER” all together and just gave a small description line. Not so with the fiction. I just went through 17 novels (gawd, but I need to clean off my desk!) and found only one that gave descriptors, while the rest did “CHAPTER #” or more often, just a number.

WARNING: I am obsessanting again and this isn’t a life-changing subject, so if you’d rather read about something else, go here and ponder the whimsical nature of the Universe.

The funny thing is, in print I always found the lines and quotes and descriptors in the chapter heads of novels a bit of an affectation. Maybe because they struck me as clutter or maybe it was because they weren’t done particularly well. I dunno. Now that I have Larry the Kindle never far from my side, I find myself growing rather annoyed by CHAPTER # or worse, just a number. Which sends me down a bunny trail of wondering what’s the point of even having chapters or why we ever started breaking up novels into chapters in the first place.

But it does tie into one of my many little obsessions–navigation in ebooks. Because of the way I am, the way I keep track of things, I’m very dependent on visual clues when I read. I might forget the title of a book, but I will remember it has a red cover or it’s thick or thin. If I want to find an especially poignant or funny quote, I won’t recall the page number, but I’ll remember it was near the back or the front of the book and near the end of the chapter or something like that, so I can pick up a book and thumb through a few pages and find what I was looking for. That’s in print books. My Kindle doesn’t give me those visual prompts. If I happen to forget to bookmark a passage as I am reading, I have a devil of a time finding it again. Without the visual prompts of covers, I sometimes have trouble remembering which book it is–it’s a quirk in my memory, but I am terrible with titles and author names. (another quirk, I can remember fictional character names much better than the names of real people)

(If anything ever forces me to break down and get a tablet or some such nonsense, it will be that one feature of having colorful book covers on a virtual shelf. I love my eink reader, but lists of titles just don’t do it for me. le sigh…)

Given my own experience and how I do things, I’m always looking for ways to make ebooks more memorable on a visual level and make them easier to navigate. I’ve thought of this before, mulled over it, decided at one point it didn’t make much difference, but now I’m coming back around again. I remember a lot of books from my childhood that had descriptors (What are those called anyway? Chapter leads? Chapter titles?)–“In which our intrepid hero teases the bear…”–and they served as little memory prompts when I wanted to go back and reread a passage or read it aloud to someone else. Given how very easy it is to include such material in an ebook–both at the chapter location and in the table of contents–I have to ask, why not do it? Sure, it takes some time and thought to come up with the four to ten words necessary for a clever line, it might be worthwhile and it’s relatively painless and it certainly couldn’t hurt.


16 thoughts on “What Do Your Chapter Heads Say?

  1. I’ve just read a pre publication novel and reviewed it, WRATH by Kirkus Macgown. Kirkus included chapter titles and he also included, here my ignorance comes in, sub chapter titles too as each Chapter was broken down into bits – probably the wrong description but you know what I’m like – anyway rightly or wrongly I said to him in an email, ditch the chapter and sub chapter titles, don’t need them. Whether he takes any notice of me or not we will need to wait and see when the book comes out on Amazon at the end of the month. I didn’t mention any of that in my review though.

    But, now that you mention it in the way you have, on reflection, I think just ditching the sub chapter headings would be ok but keep the main chapter title

    I’m rambling again

    Oh it had a great cover on the iPad it just had one hint of colour the rest of it was black, white and grey but absolutely perfect as every symbol on the cover was pertinent to the story I don’t think it will lose anything from it to much on the e ink readers

    • Hi, Tom. I really don’t know if this is a issue or not. It’s something I ponder every once in a while and if I hadn’t been working on so many non-fiction titles it probably wouldn’t have come into the forefront at all. It’s just that in print books, I don’t need that particular memory prompt, so I don’t really pay much attention to chapter heads at all–in print they’re pretty much placeholders and nothing more. That said, to me it sounds as if Macgown was on the right track, but botched it a bit–did he get too cute with them or something, to where they detracted from the text? I recall one novel I read years ago, but the only thing I recall are the chapter heads. They were puns and didn’t seem to have anything to do with the story so they just hung in the air the way bad jokes do. That couldn’t have been the writer’s (or editor’s) intent, but that’s what happened anyway.

      There’s an art to design, even in ebooks where it’s mainly the text that has to do the heavy lifting. Visual effect–and it doesn’t take much, so no bells and whistles and moving parts, please–is something for every writer to at least think about.

      By the way, I’m with you on the mostly-monochromatic covers. I love them. Extremely colorful covers turn me off, actually, especially if they are busy.

      • Jaye, yep, I think Kirkus may have just been trying to hard and again why are you so clever. Again I think you are so right about the difference of including chapter titles in e books and not in print books

        Back to Kirkus and just as an example it’s night time Chapter 13 – Through The Darkness Back To The Factory

        About three or 4 pages on sub heading: Three Man Consult – Alan knocked ….. The three men sitting before Chief Burleson’s desk…. A few pages on sub heading: The Tunnel and then this part goes on to describe John crawling through a small tunnel he has discovered in the factory

        I really, really did love the story and the way it unfolded and the pace, but they became annoying

      • I have to get this book now, Tom. I need to see this in practice (and I suspect I will have the opposite reaction you have–ha!). I just checked Amazon, no pre-orders. Send me an email when it’s available (jog my memory).

        it looks as if this would be a device to use with caution, with every effort made to find the sweet spot between memorable and annoying. It is very easy to be way too clever for one’s own good in this biz. That one print book within reach that has the chapter heads? Too clever and punny. Easy to ignore in print, would drive me bonkers in an ebook.

  2. I think I’ve seen more descriptors in historical fiction than other genres, though my friend Raji just published Tales of the Fiction House and he’s used them. Readers will love them because of the various ‘tales’ within his book. It will be easy for them to navigate to their favorites.

    I admit the lack of descriptors in most fiction hasn’t bothered me. I’m a heavy user of the search function, both on my Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for MAC. (No separate e-reader for me!) And with fiction, I rarely even look at the TOC – would I look at it more if it included more than ‘chapter 1’? Maybe.

    That said, I am actually considering the use of descriptors in my upcoming book. I’m covering 12 years in the lives of the Family Peace. I could use “Christmas 1992” but it would better to have something more meaningful. Will need to think about this…

    • Hi, Char. With so many ways to read ebooks, just about every reader will have their preferred methods of getting around. The way I look at it is, if it might help and it doesn’t hurt, then it’s worth a shot. I know THIS reader would greatly appreciate a table of contents with more than Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc etc etc..:D

  3. I knew it – ‘chapter titles’ is in the ether. Great minds, and all that.

    Read a post at TalkToYoUniverse for Aug. 7, 2012 (forgive me – haven’t learned to link). The post was about the use of chapter titles both for writing and navigating. I commented about how useful I find them for both, and to add resonance – connections to the real world.

    It is too much for most books, BUT if it is part of the information given the reader to create the whole story, I would use them. Judgment call.

    As the WIP has become a duology, and ends up being a braiding of what actually happened, plus what the media at the time said happened, plus what an investigative journalist trying to figure out what happened writes, things like chapter headings, dates, and epigraphs become the landmarks necessary to navigate the story.

    Why? I don’t know – but that’s the way the darned thing makes sense. The story can be read simply (without all the extra stuff) as what actually happened. But in our days the media cannot be ignored, and when something contrary to expectation happens (WTF?!), people are interested in why and how.

    • Again, send me an email when this is available. I HAVE to see what you’re attempting to do.

      Here’s another thing to keep in mind. When it comes to indie published books, especially ebooks, it is very, very easy to change them, update them, rework them. If readers respond with “What is all this crazy garbage?!?” the writer can easily take the crazy garbage out. The best experiments ARE wild and crazy–and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but how would one know unless one tries, right?

      Here’s a call-out to this blog’s readers. If you’ve tried a Grand Experiment (and not just with chapter heads, but with anything regarding the format, structure or organization) with your ebook, send me a link at jayewmanus at gmail dot com. I want to see what you’ve done and I’d love to discuss what you hoped to accomplish and if you think it worked or not.

      • Thanks – I will send you an email when further along.

        I have struggled for years, not with the story – that was clear enough – but with the PITCH (and, by implication, with the question of why should you read this).

        Until the subconscious kicked up: Would you read an article in The New Yorker purporting to be the story of how Julia Roberts decided to marry country singer Lyle Lovett?

        When I heard what she had done – and similarly what what happened to Sandra Bullock and Jesse James – my curiosity went into overdrive. The hook was the possibility of hearing the true story of an alliance that rattled convention, even for celebrities. (I read People magazine ONLY in the dentist/doctor’s office – honestly.)

        What if such a misalliance occurred – and what if it persisted – and what if…

        It added the third strand to the braid, and the pitch almost wrote itself. I have to give up the idea of the reader finding out certain things only gradually – and gained instead a sense of comparing what’s going on in ‘reality’ with what is going on in ‘the media (those epigraphs),’ as analyzed from the outside – when two of the characters won’t talk to the investigative reporter, and the third is unreliable.

        Now, for a third typesetting style – probably just indicated by dates, margins, and something else small so you know which story you’re in – and the reader won’t get lost.

        Thanks for the formatting you did for the mockup – and I’ll keep a strong rein on myself to not get cute with typography and fonts.

  4. If I’m writing literary fiction or nonfiction I do include chapter headings or titles. I’m not sure how one would include titles with a romance novel. Hmmmmmm.

    • I really don’t know, Julia. It would be very easy to get ‘cute’ and thus defeat the purpose. I suspect the device would work best in some types of novels (as Char said, historical) and be little more than clutter in others.

  5. I’m doing ’em, but that’s because I’m trying to emulate the great Cervantes. Or, rather, since he did ’em (with panache), I thought I should, too. i like ’em.

    • I swear I remember it was common practice when I was a kid (not by me, by others, I was no child prodigy). Next time I’m at the library, I’m going to dig up some of my old faves and see.

  6. Pingback: Chapters | N. E. White

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