A series of quick hooks

You already know you need a catchy title for your book. And you have – I hope – taken care with the language in your text.

But what about chapter titles?

They’re often no more than an after-thought. They should be more than that. The cover and the title will persuade someone to peruse your book – but if you’ve titled the chapters, they can help turn a browser into a reader; a table of contents tells a prospective reader what to expect from the reading ahead.

What do yours say?

Not all books need titled chapters. Many novels use numbers–some non-fiction books, too–and are none the worse for it. If chapter titles don’t add something useful to the book, you’re better off without them.

The Great Gatsby managed well enough with just chapter numbers, but it might have drawn in even more readers with sympathetic chapter titles. (Scott Fitzgerald had no end of trouble coming up with a name for his novel and didn’t much care for the end result; having to write chapter titles as well might have thrown him.) But even there, what they can add might surprise you. For Gatsby, one online editor suggested these:

  • Chapter 1- The Truth of the Green Light
  • Chapter 2- Among the Ash Heaps
  • Chapter 3- The Host
  • Chapter 4- The Pursued, the Pursuing, the Busy and the Tired
  • Chapter 5- Ghostly Heart
  • Chapter 6- Among the Millionaires
  • Chapter 7- The Inferno
  • Chapter 8- The Holocaust
  • Chapter 9- The Dream of the Green Light

Had those chapters been so named when I first considered reading it (at that time, and for some years, I passed), they might have drawn me in sooner. There’s a hidden or subtle bit of wisdom (though it may turn out to be something else) hinted at in that first chapter; conflict or disaster in the second; a striking character in the third, and so on. In short, the chapter titles would have piqued my curiosity, given me a sense of what to expect. And I would have wanted to discover more.

Many writers start with “plain vanilla” topic-covering chapter titles, which are fine as placeholders. But by the time your book hits print or electronic format, they should be revised to do more useful work.

One writing blogger, Christina Mercer, suggests, “For me, good (operative word here) titles set the tone, boost excitement, and/or give a quick window into what’s going to happen even if it’s not the way the reader thinks (like a twist on the actual meaning of the title).”

A good title gives a sense of what’s in the chapter to come, but it also adds an element of suspense, surprise, curiosity, even thrill. This is true for both fiction and non-fiction.

Here are the first 10 chapter titles from Robert Caro’s latest (and terrific) Lyndon Johnson biography, Passage of Power:

  • The prediction
  • The rich man’s son
  • Forging chains
  • The back stairs
  • The “LBJ Special”
  • “Power is where power goes”
  • Genuine warmth
  • Cut
  • Gestures and Tactics
  • The Protégé
  • The Cubicle
  • Taking Charge

All are relevant to their chapters, but none gives away the story of those chapters. They raise questions and provoke suspense, but you have to keep reading to find out more. “The prediction” – what prediction would that be, and what’s its significance (and did it come to fruition)? “The back stairs” sounds as if we’re being let in on the hidden story of what happened in back rooms (which we will be).

“Gestures and tactics” suggests we’ll be getting more detail about how this master of politics worked (and we do).

Episode titles in television series serve much the same purpose as chapter titles in books, and they can give you good ideas as well. You can get some good ideas from reviewing series episode titles.

You might glance, for example, at some of the neatly chosen titles for the first season of “Lost” (after the first episode, which was simply labeled “Pilot.”) “Tabula Rasa” was about the supposedly blank slates that were the characters as we first met them and as they arrived on their mysterious island. “Walkabout ” was about a journey to a place, the activity planned for the place, and then related to a startling twist and reveal at the end. “Whatever the Case May Be ” involves different interpretations of a series of events – as well as a physical, hard-to-open briefcase with something mysterious inside.

What do these titles have in common?

They bear no whiff of cliché, at least in an overt way. Beware of anything that sounds trite or even ordinary, a truism or a common saying. They not only suggest similar qualities in the text, but used without care they come off as self-important and ponderous. Note however that clichés can be rewritten (to give them new bite) or repurposed or turned on their head (“Whatever the Case May Be”). Many good chapter titles give you the uneasy sense that they may mean something quite different from what you’re expecting by the time the episode (or chapter) is over.

Even better if the title has not just a couple of meanings, but a multiplicity. The right title can transform a chapter into a gem with many facets, no less in non-fiction than in fiction.

Good titles often are intriguing: You may wonder what that could be about.

The first chapter of a great biography of Oregon Governor Tom McCall was titled “Old Roman and the Copper King,” which got my attention when I picked up the book.

Include a twist, if you can. Misdirect (without misleading altogether or promising what isn’t delivered). You can use a title to provide an O. Henry ending.

Some very good chapter titles are deeply ironic, which can carry a great impact. A chapter title that tells you up front, in explicit language, what the chapter is about, takes away the opportunity to do that, to let the reader discover as he reads.

Titles should suggest what’s to come, but the best don’t lay it out explicitly. They tease, they hook, they make you want to know more. They don’t beat you over the head with a declaration about the subject they’re going to address or the point to be made. They let the reader find out about those things in the course of reading the chapter.

Fewer words are better. Period. One is better than two, two are better than three, three are better than four …

It’s your chance to grab a reader in the space of a single second.

stapilusmugRandy Stapilus has been since 1988 publisher of Ridenbaugh Press (www.ridenbaugh.com), which publishes books and periodicals mainly about the Pacific Northwest states. He has written a number of books for Ridenbaugh and four for other publishers as well. A former daily newspaper reporter and editor, he lives with his wife Linda in Carlton, Oregon.