Earlier this year, Fiction+ considered whether a novel should have a table of contents. Although it might seem to be a matter of personal preference, there are strong practical reasons for including or not including a TOC, depending on a book’s genre and format.
Is the same thing true when deciding whether chapters should be numbered or titled? A survey of my social media turned up a number of reasons to go one way or the other, along with some strong opinions:
- Personal preference (“I like the look of numbers,” “I like the look of titles,” “I always use roman numerals, but then I’m weird,” “I hate chapter titles”)
- Helpfulness in navigating (“Numbers make it easier to navigate, especially in an ebook,” “Titles make it easier to find my way around,” “Numbers aren’t memorable,” “Numbers are a helpful management feature”)
- Reading experience (“I don’t like titles because they’re spoilers,” “I especially like it when titles are clever,” “I think titles are stupid and distracting,” “Titled chapters tell a story,” “A good chapter title compels me to read more”)
- Publishing standards (“Titles are for nonfiction,” “Children’s books usually have titles,” “They vary from one novel to another,” “Author’s call”)
- Random misinformation (“Agents ask for chapter numbers,” “Your book contract will say which you have to use,” “Fiction almost always has numbers,” “In self-publishing you can choose; in traditional publishing you have to follow the rules”)
Is There a Choice?
We can dispense with the idea that there’s a single right answer for novelists dithering over how to head up their chapters. While drafting this post I checked the chapters of fourteen New York Times best sellers in fiction for that week and found this breakdown:
- 4 novels used chapter (or part) numbers but no titles
- 4 novels used chapter titles but no numbers
- 6 novels combined numbers and titles for parts and chapters
While this is hardly definitive, it confirms that there is a choice, even within traditional publishing. To me it suggests that each writer, perhaps in consultation with an agent or editor, decided the best approach for their book. It’s also possible that the writer decided and no one objected in the course of preparing the book for publication. For what it’s worth, respondents to a quick Twitter poll strongly preferred a combination of number and title.
Does the Fiction Genre Matter?
While there are no ironclad rules for choosing between chapter numbers and chapter titles, fans of a given genre might intuit that there are trends. A writer then can decide whether the trend works for them. Every aspiring author will naturally read deeply in the genre they’re writing so as to get a feel for its traditions, whether to honor or flout them. Agents and editors can also be helpful in nudging writers one way or another toward choices that meet reader expectations.
What about Navigation?
When a reader wants to find a specific passage in a book, chapter titles may provide more helpful clues to its location than chapter numbers. The task is even easier if there is a table of contents. Arguably, then, when it comes to navigation, chapter titles plus a table of contents is the best combination for searching in any kind of book, although in e-books the absence of chapter titles will be offset by the ability to search by keyword.
It’s common for novels to have more than one main character and chapters that alternate between their points of view. In those books, readers depend on a title to identify who’s up in the current chapter or to locate other chapters from that character’s point of view.
Since most people don’t read a novel in one sitting, chapter titles can help readers find their place when they come back to a book. Titles also orient readers in the story going forward: the title can name a time and place, hint at or tell what’s going to happen, or create a mood.
Styling Numbered Chapters
Chapter numbers can be expressed in all kinds of ways. I suspect that many writers who number their chapters simply use the automatic numbering feature in their word processor without giving the style much thought. Then, in the graphic design stage of publication, the style might be changed for aesthetic reasons to match the book’s overall design.
1, 2, 3
I, II, III
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3
Chapter I, Chapter II, Chapter III
One, Two, Three
Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three
Writing Chapter Titles
Chapter titles have few rules to follow. You can choose to write huge-long titles, titles that add up to a secret message, titles that are palindromes. Some writers take advantage of the opportunity to be creative with titles in a bid to intrigue or charm potential readers (i.e., buyers). But for most writers, the following basic conventions make sense:
Style chapter titles all the same. “Style” in this sense encompasses a number of choices. If your book has a table of contents, you can use it to quickly compare all the titles for basic consistencies. (At the same time, you can check that your TOC matches the chapter headings exactly.)
- Capitalization: If you use title caps for the first chapter (Magic in the Forest), don’t use sentence caps for the second one (Mischief in the clearing).
- Appearance: All chapter titles should be either flush left, centered, or flush right, in the same font and type size. That way an odd title won’t be misread as a part title or section title.
- Syntax: A roughly parallel structure in the syntax of chapter titles is pleasing to readers. For instance, it’s traditional not to mix simple noun titles (Magic Forest) with sentence titles (Rosemary Goes to the Forest).
- Punctuation: Especially when mixing chapter numbers and titles, give them consistent punctuation. Here are some options I’ve seen recently. Notice the variety: periods, commas, colons, and no punctuation at all.
1. The Battered Telephone
Chapter 3: Gloria
Don’t end chapter titles with a period. Even if they could be a complete sentence (Rosemary Goes to the Forest), traditional chapter titles don’t have punctuation at the end, with the occasional exception of a question mark or exclamation point. This isn’t a rule; it’s just the default. A period at the end of a chapter title will look amateurish unless there’s a motive behind it that readers can discover.
Think twice about including essential information in the chapter title. Plenty of readers dislike chapter titles and ignore them. Keep that in mind when writing a title that conveys essential information that doesn’t appear in the chapter itself. Of course, if all your titles work that way, even recalcitrant readers will have to get on board. (I’m thinking of chapters that identify the speaker in that chapter, or titles like those in Gillian McAllister’s Wrong Place Wrong Time (New York: William Morrow, 2022), e.g., “Day Zero, just after midnight” and “Day Minus Six Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Eight, 08:00.”)
Avoid spoilers. In nonfiction, readers like to know exactly what’s in a chapter. In a novel, spoilers—well, they’re called spoilers for a reason.
Help for Writers
Major self-publishing platforms offer templates that help ensure consistent design treatment of a book’s elements (whether a title is flush left or centered, how far it falls from the top margin, what font and type size it’s in, etc.). Professional book designers look after details like those—and many more—as they prepare a book for publication. Indie writers who aren’t sure of their own skills might consider hiring a graphic designer.
Publishing templates won’t expose errors in the text, however, and graphic designers don’t necessarily proofread for consistency in capitalization, punctuation, or spelling. A professional editor or proofreader can help with that.
Many top-selling novels feature chapter titles or a combination of chapter numbers and titles, at the risk of annoying readers who claim to hate them. While chapter numbers are also a perfectly respectable choice for fiction writers, titles make navigating a book easier and offer creative opportunities for inspired writers.
Typewriter image by Pedrosala / Adobe Stock.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Carol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.
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