Eight Strategies for Choosing Chapter Titles

I’ve heard all sorts of opinions about whether you should give titles to your chapters. Some readers say they love chapter titles, others hate them, others simply don’t notice whether they’re there.

In my first novel, Blue Rabbit, I used snippets of song lyrics as chapter titles. My second novel, The Relic Spell, which goes on pre-sale next month (!) doesn’t have chapter titles. Both approaches were lots of fun to work with (and each carried their special challenges).

My point today isn’t to tell you if you should use chapter titles—it’s to give you ideas for how to use chapter titles if you decide you want them.

These eight strategies are used to great effect by skilled, successful authors. One thing they all have in common is that they all tease what’s to come in the chapter that follows; they all provide a hook of some sort. Each of these chapter titles makes you want to keep reading.

1. The Snippet of Dialogue

I’ve seen this strategy used in several different books, but the one that comes most easily to mind is The Shadow Demons Saga by Sarra Cannon. This chapter naming style is used consistently throughout almost every chapter in the series, which is probably why it stuck with me.

The first ten books in  The Shadow Demons Saga.

The first ten books in The Shadow Demons Saga.

How the author uses this strategy: Each chapter title is a short phrase (around five or six words on average) that will come up through dialogue in the chapter. It hints at the main conflict that will come up in the chapter, but doesn’t give details. The dialogue snippets are often vague and hint more at moods and feelings than at plot events.

Why it works for this series: The Shadow Demons Saga is a dialogue-heavy series. A lot of the conflict is interpersonal and comes through in conversation between characters, so it makes sense to pull lines of dialogue to serve as chapter titles. The series is also told in a conversational, first-person POV, so this strategy works even when chapter titles have words like “you” or “I,” which might seem out of place if the book was in third person.

An example: The first chapter in Beautiful Demons, which is the first book in the series, is called “This Is Your Last Chance.” In the chapter, the main character, Harper, is heading for her sixth foster home in a year. She learns from her case worker that if she doesn’t make it work at this foster home, she will have to go to juvenile detention. The title comes up in dialogue when Harper’s case worker explains the ultimatum. From the moment we read the chapter title, we know something dire or high-stakes is going to be revealed in the first chapter, and the chapter delivers.

Other examples:

  • “Do Not Touch My Things”

  • “Guys Like Drake Only Date Cheerleaders”

  • “Maybe He Wasn’t A Demons Fan”

  • “You’ll Need to Come With Us”

2. The Thematic, Single-Word Title

Plenty of books use single-word chapter titles, sometimes to emphasize the significance of a particular chapter. But The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stands out in its use of single-word titles because its author, N. K. Jemisin, employs them in almost every chapter.

All three books in  The Inheritance Trilogy  by N. K. Jemisin.

All three books in The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin.

How the author uses this strategy: The majority of the chapters in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in the trilogy, have one or two-word titles. They’re all simple and generally non-specific, such as “Chaos,” “Love,” “Cousin,” “Memories,” etc. They don’t really hint at what’s to come, but they unify the events of the chapter thematically.

Why it works for this book: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a blurry watercolor of a book; everything feels nebulous and subdued, hiding its tension and complexity under the surface. The simple, one or two-word titles contribute to this feeling. A lot of the conflict is internal and indirect; these simple titles hint at these conflicts rather than at the actual events of each chapter. The book is told out of order, mimicking the way memory works, but the chapter titles don’t help us keep track of chronology; they allow the reader to remain untethered from time and place.

An example: Chapter 9 is titled “Memories.” This chapter isn’t the only one in which the main character, Yeine, thinks about her past, since a lot of the conflict in her story takes place inside of her. However, in this chapter, Yeine talks to Sieh, a trickster god, and asks him about her mother, who is the source greatest mystery for her throughout the story. The chapter title isn’t directly tied to the events of the chapter, but it is thematically linked, because in this chapter, Yeine’s memories of her mother are in conflict with what she’s learning about her mother from Sieh.

Other examples:

  • “Grandfather”

  • “Darkness”

  • “Magician”

  • “Sanity”

3. The POV Signpost

There are many different approaches to dealing with books that have multiple point-of-view (POV) characters. A common approach is to use the POV character’s name as the title of a chapter. One of the most popular examples of this chapter-naming strategy is the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

The first five books of the  A Song of Ice and Fire  series, which the HBO series was based on.

The first five books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which the HBO series was based on.

How the author uses this strategy: Each chapter has the name of the POV character as its title. With the amount of POV characters in this series, it’s practically the only approach that would have allowed the readers to keep track of who is talking.

Why it works for this series: In dark, adult novels, it seems less common to name chapters. However, even without a unique title for each chapter, the name of the character whose eyes we will be looking through serves as a hook in addition to a logistical aid. When a chapter is named “Jon,” we know we will be traveling to the Wall and finding out what’s going on with the wildlings and the Others/White Walkers.

4. Numbered Chapters, Named Parts

Often, books won’t have chapter names, but they will be divided into several “parts” that will have titles. I’m currently reading two different books that use this strategy: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I’m going to use Aristotle and Dante as an example, since it’s the more recent of the two.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe  by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

How the author uses this strategy: There are six named parts throughout the book, each with a bunch of short, numbered chapters inside of it. The part titles are usually name-dropped in the first few chapters of each part, which immediately gives context to the meaning of the title. However, the title is usually re-contextualized at the end of the part. Each part covers a different phase of the story and leads up to an important incident, which is hinted at in the title. The titles are all poetic, which matches the tone of the book.

Why it works for this book: The chapters vary in length, but for the most part are very short, with some of them only a couple of short paragraphs long. It would probably feel like too much to have hundreds of chapter titles. This strategy allows the author to both divide the story into lots of short paragraphs and have titles to distinguish the different phases of the story. The book is a lot more about sprawling character development than about plot, so the part titles help the reader keep track of what’s going on.

An example: The first part in the book is called “The Different Rules of Summer.” In the second chapter in this part, Aristotle, the narrator, tells the reader: “I loved the different rules of summer. My mother endured them.” The title of the first part is a reference to this line about Aristotle’s mother’s strict rules and Aristotle’s desire to break them. It’s also a hint that this part will be about a change in the “rules” of Aristotle’s life: during this summer, he meets Dante and makes the first real friend of his life.

Other examples:

  • “Sparrows Falling from the Sky”

  • “The End of Summer”

  • “Letters on a Page”

  • “Remember the Rain”

5. The Time and Place Indicator

Whenever a book jumps around in time and place, it can be helpful to have titles or subtitles for each chapter that indicate when and where the chapter will take place. There’s often not a separate chapter title, since that would be a lot of text. However, the time/place stamp functions as a title. A great example of this strategy is The World Gates series by Holly Lisle.

All three books in  The World Gates  series by Holly Lisle.

All three books in The World Gates series by Holly Lisle.

How the author uses this strategy: Each chapter has a number, and underneath is the indication of where the chapter will take place. Sometimes the author takes us to a new place in the middle of the chapter, in which case there will be a new sub-header indicating the new place.

Why it works for this series: The World Gates, as the name indicates, takes place across different worlds. There are several POV characters, and many of them have the ability to travel between dimensions. A little less than half the story takes place on Earth, another little less than half takes place on a world called Oria, and the rest takes place in various other worlds. Since there are so many jumps between worlds, it’s much more efficient to use a sub-header to indicate where we are than to explain the location each time.

An example: Chapter 1 in Memory of Fire, the first book in the series, has the sub-header “Ballahara, Nuue, Oria.” This sub-header establishes, before the book has even begun, that we are in a world different from Earth. We meet one of the main characters, Molly McColl, who we learn is an Earth woman who has been dragged from Earth by beings from Oria. Halfway through the chapter, there’s a new sub-header that reads: “Cat Creek, North Carolina.” Holly Lisle teaches the reader in the first chapter what to expect from the rest of the book by simply using these sub-headers to casually transport us from one world and one POV to another.

6. The Taunt

Since chapter titles need to encourage a reader to read the chapter, a title will often present a mystery. I like to call this strategy “the taunt” because the title forces the reader to keep reading to find out what it means. A great example of this strategy is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor.

All three books in the  Daughter of Smoke and Bone  series by Laini Taylor.

All three books in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor.

How the author uses this strategy: Like with the first strategy I talked about, the snippet of dialogue, all the chapter titles in this series are taken from something that’s said in the chapter, though it’s usually a snippet of narration rather than a snippet of dialogue. Instead of themes or upcoming conflicts, these chapter titles are straight-up mysteries in and of themselves. Either they contain terms or phrases that haven’t been brought up before, or they tell the reader that they’re finally getting something they’ve been anticipating, or they’re simply unexpected.

Why it works for this series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its sequels are all about mysteries. At every turn, the author withholds information from the reader. I even made a blog post about how Laini Taylor world-builds and creates tension by refusing to tell the reader information until the last possible moment.

An example: My favorite use of this strategy is in Chapter 3 of the first book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The chapter is called simply “Cranny.” At the end of the previous chapter, the protagonist, Karou, called her ex-boyfriend “a walking, talking cranny.” We know that the chapter title is probably in reference to her ex, but we don’t know why it’s important enough to be a chapter title. It’s funny, it’s mysterious, and it serves as a great hook to keep the reader engaged.

Other examples:

  • “Impossible to Scare”

  • “Poison Kitchen”

  • “The Graverobber”

  • “A Piece of Empty Candy”

7. The World-Building Title

This strategy can be blended with The Taunt strategy, especially when it’s introducing a piece of world-building the reader hasn’t heard of before. However, the main purpose of a world-building chapter title is to ground the reader rather than to give them a mystery. The example I’m using is the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness.

All the books in the  Chaos Walking  series by Patrick Ness.

All the books in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness.

How the author uses this strategy: Most of the chapters are named after the concept, place, person, or thing that will be introduced in the chapter. Instead of hinting at events, conflicts, or mysteries, these chapters generally hint at what the reader will learn.

Why it works for this series: The Chaos Walking series is heavy on world-building; the world provides most of the conflict and plot impetus throughout the story. Sometimes, the chapter titles are intriguing because they introduce the reader to an aspect of the world they haven’t encountered yet. Often, the chapter titles simply orient the reader and don’t necessarily serve as a hook. The story is so heavy on cliffhangers and tension anyway that it doesn’t really need the chapter titles to serve that function.

An example: The second chapter in The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the series, is called “Prentisstown.” The title is intriguing because the reader has been hearing about Prentisstown throughout the first chapter but hasn’t gotten to see it yet. However, it’s mostly just informative: we know that in this chapter, we’re going to learn about the town where Todd, the main character, lives, and what’s so strange about it.

Other examples:

  • “Ben and Cillian”

  • “The Book of No Answers”

  • “The Bridge”

  • “Farbranch”

8. The Topic Title

Occasionally, chapter titles will simply indicate the topic that will be covered in that chapter. This description makes this strategy sound kind of boring and textbook-like, but there’s no reason it has to be. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros uses this strategy, and it works perfectly.

The House on Mango Street  by Sandra Cisneros.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

How the author uses this strategy: Each chapter’s title tells the reader what the chapter will be about. Simple as that. Some chapter titles are straightforward, such as “Hairs”; this chapter describes the different hair that each member of the main character’s family has. Some chapter titles are a bit more obscure, such as “And Some More”; in this chapter, the main character, Esperanza, struggles to understand the many different names different things and people go by.

Why it works for this book: In the introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of this book, Sandra Cisneros says that she wanted readers to be able to read the book in any order. That’s why she divided it into a bunch of short chapters with titles that indicate what the reader is getting into. The reader can pick up the book and flip through until they find a title that intrigues them and then read the chapter that follows. The lack of chapter numbers also encourages the reader not to read the book in a specific order.

An example: There’s a chapter about halfway through the book called “There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do.” Like many other chapters, this one introduces one of Esperanza’s neighbors. It’s an intriguing chapter title because it introduces an interesting conflict, but it’s also an orienting chapter title because it tells the reader what to expect.

Other examples:

  • “Boys and Girls”

  • “My Name”

  • “Gil’s Furniture Bought & Sold”

  • “The Family of Little Feet”

Your Turn!

If you want to use chapter titles in your work, see if your book matches up with any of the “Why it works for this book” sections of this post and try out the corresponding strategy. Share in the comments section and/or on social media if you’ve tried any of these strategies, what other strategies you’ve used, and/or what other strategies you’ve noticed in other people’s books. Make sure to tag (@JimenaINovaro) me if you post on Twitter or Instagram so I can see it!