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What are some of the criteria for a chapter title (In a fictional novel)?

How deep should a chapter title be, what should it try to convey, and how important is it that these things be met? Also, what are some good ways to come up with meaningful titles for your chapters?

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For fiction, you should be concerned with painting the picture as vivid as possible in the minds of your reader. So no, your chapter titles should not be deep.

Chapter titles may be one of these things

  • A summary of the chapter in a word or two
  • A punchline or punch word
  • The geographic setting of the subplot in that chapter

You risk losing your reader with an intriguing chapter title. If your reader has to go back and ask "Why was this chapter named so-and-so?", you have introduced a break in their minds, and this is counterproductive.

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There's no real criteria for chapter titles, as with most things in writing you can do what you like. There's no reason to have them if you don't want to, either.

That said, it's probably a good idea to keep them short and succinct (no longer than about six or seven words).

Most authors use them to tease the reader with a vague description of what's coming, for example "downfall" for a chapter in which one or more characters fail to do something spectacularly. Others merely take a curiosity-baiting phrase or sentence from the chapter and use it as the chapter title. They should always be appropriate, even if they don't always give the reader the most accurate initial impression. For example, "downfall" could also mean that someone or something important literally falls in the chapter.

Books with multiple viewpoint characters also tend to name each chapter after the character who is the primary viewpoint character for it.

Hope that helps!

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Recommendations will be subjective

Unlike books, chapters do not need titles in the first place. To have them can be more convenient, for the same reason why human beings have names, not numbers. Additionally, I argue that titles can unfold nicely if they fit their context. They will never enhance the chapter itself, but they are an opportunity to highlight motives or moments, and can be an overall pleasant addition to the narrative.

Since you want to use them, the only strong requirement is to choose a scheme for your titles that fits the type of text you are writing, and that you will keep throughout the whole of the text. I will elaborate on two schemes mentioned before, but only after saying: Good advice is a bad advisor. Even infamous rules like Show_Dont_Tell! are marginal. Here is what I call the writers' imperative: Decisions must address the requirements implied by what you want to achieve with that text.

That said, let's tackle some titles:

  1. There was a suggestion about putting [Location] or [Time] in the title, and I feel that such a scheme is closely related to scientific or other "purposeful" literature. The information given may replace description within the chapter, saving space and providing structure. In prose, using such explicit data in title format can be used to underline a main trait of a text. The format fits well with:

    • short texts - whose confined space may dictate efficiency;
    • diary types and journey plots: formats that commonly use this scheme;
    • overall technical mindset (beaurocracy, logistics company, main character ...).

      In all of those cases, leading each chapter with a statement of setting is perfectly justified.

    Without such context, however, I would fail to see the point in providing that kind of detail in the title section of a narrative chapter. This can be misleading, too. For example,

    (A/The) House at the sea

    ... seriously evokes images for readers who have been to the sea - but these may be the wrong images, as a more detailed description will ensue in the chapter, possibly causing friction with what the reader already expected. This title is better suited for a book cover where there will be an accompanying picture. Here, it contains a high risk of annoying the reader during the course of the chapter, because they did not choose to create the wrong assumptions - the author did!

  2. Instead, for most kinds of narration a less informative, more interesting title could work well. Why is that? Assuming that story telling should be entertaining (to make the reader want to continue, because they are not obligated to read) - and considering that titles are not compulsory - quickly doubt will arise in sight of any flat, descriptive or commonplace titles: Why do they exist in the first place? Such doubts hurt the experience, and I conclude that titles for a narrative chapter should strive to be interesting.

    Now, what is interesting? Humor helps, but many unexpected connections will work. Anything unclear, ambiguous or encrypted - that which needs further information to be put together. Note that your title, in order to be rewarding, should have potential to create a moment of satisfaction, when after staying unclear first, suddenly interacts with an ongoing development inside the chapter.

    Although 'yogurt' turned out to be a typo, I'll use it for my some examples anyway:

    A case of yogurt

    ... this one is not interesting, a very generic and meager title. Alas, sometimes inventing titles for every chapter is a burden. Certainly, nothing is wrong about a less interesting title here and there - pick a plot element and wrap it up in a phrase, when nothing else works. But if you do, make it count! Reading the expression "a case of X", a reader can expect a plot element to go down the crime/analytical route, or to be a parody thereof. Or both. If the chapter meets one of those expectations, the title has a reason to exist.

    (To thicken the promise, there is also the secondary meaning of "case". If any case gets carried or lost somewhere in the chapter, the title will bear more fruits.)

    Yogurt dependancies

    ... more curious, suggests either a form of drug theme (dependancy, with yogurt as a placeholder), or a depiction of special human relationships (that are somehow similar to yogurt). Or more. The word "dependancy" gravitates towards serious business, but not necessarily. Could also be a hint to a programmer's unsolved yogurt problem.

    Yogurt on the top shelf

    ... this time, yogurt (not a placeholder) is set in an odd location. Implying it was put there momentarily, the yogurt may be the object of a kid's or cat's longing inability to reach that yogurt - or, on the opposite, it may be the victim of someone's bad memory. In that case, the yogurt may have become rotten, a source of disgust, a symbol for a being without purpose. Or more. A very plot-oriented, motivating and potentially insightful title, that could expand the plot.

    (Note that "top shelf" will be misleading if the chapter has no shopping mall. It shows again how concrete data is a risk in titles. Try to validate the obvious meanings your title could have, if any. Or confirm the setting in the very first sentence.)

There will be dozens of good possibilities for a title of any half-decent chapter, but their selection will most likely be plot-related, ambiguous and entertaining. It will fit in a scheme used throughout the text.

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Great answer! Welcome to Writers.SE :) – Standback Mar 13 at 12:58
1  
Thanks, @Standback, for the warm welcome! You seem like a good moderator ^^ I hope yogurt chapters will be a thing after that ;D – fry Mar 13 at 19:04

Of course, many fiction novels only use numbers to label the chapters. I'm sure you've considered that.

Chapter titles, though, can be created in the same way as the title of a story or book. Sometimes I'll read the piece and underline words and phrases that resonate or catch my attention. Those are good candidates for titles, or they can lead to something new.

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Many, probably most, novels don't give names to chapters, they just number them. I presume they do this to avoid giving away plot developments. To give an extreme example, suppose you were writing a mystery novel. You probably include a number of suspects who are later shown to be innocent. But if when the reader opened the book he saw the table of contents and saw, "Chapter 7: The Butler is Exonerated" and "Chapter 9: Miss Scarlet's Alibi is Confirmed", well, there wouldn't be any tension about whether those people were guilty. Even something less blatant, like "The Murder Weapon is Found", could give away information much too early.

Note this is rather the opposite of a non-fiction book, where you WANT to "give away the plot". If a reader opens a math book looking for information about how to find the derivative of a trig function, you want to make it easy for him to find this information. It's not supposed to be a surprise that you can, indeed, find the derivative of such functions.

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Many literary greats have deep chapter titles. They can be as subtly deep as you want but their main purpose is to intrigue and give hints of what may come next. My advice would be to keep them obscure enough so that the chapter content is not too obvious before you read it. Think along the lines of TV series and the individual titles they give to episodes. Chapters contain themes, titles string the theme along. Don't be afraid to create your own style, I'm a big believer in not sticking to stuffy conventions that would be taught in an English class.

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It should say something about the chapter, but not the plot. An example of this is that some books I have read have the chapter name be the POV of the character, since they switch a lot. Never have a chapter that will make a reader go back and wonder why it was named what is was. A chapter title should not be to deep. At the very most, it should introduce just a hint of wonder about what is to come.

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