Chapter Titles: Probably not as Important as You Think

I’ve never been a fan of chapter titles. I just don’t see the point. I mean, if you liked chapter one, you’re going to read chapter two, whether it has a catchy title or not. And three seconds after you read the chapter title, you’re going to forget it. You don’t read along, thinking, this chapter was called Starfish, so there better be a starfish in here somewhere! No, you forget all about it, because you’re interested in the plot of the book.

On the other hand, a book’s title, of course, is crucial. It is used to catch the eye of potential readers and get them to buy the book. It should be intriguing, suggestive, informative, and have attitude. It should give a sense of the style of the book, the subject matter, the protagonist, or the theme.

The title can be just one word and have all those things. Then, you have the book’s cover design to help bring that title across and really sell the idea of the book. So that book cover or dust jacket is your billboard, your advertisement, your teaser. BUT, once the reader has bought the book, you don’t get to use advertising to keep them reading. At that point, you have to actually write a good book.

That’s why chapter titles make no sense. It’s like if you bought a mop, and in the middle of mopping your floor, an advertisement appeared on the mop handle saying “this is a great mop!” That would be ridiculous, because you’re already mopping, so you can judge for yourself.  Of course, chapter titles can be helpful in case you’re doing research and have to go back and find something, but when I’m ghostwriting a memoir or a fictional book, I pretty much assume people are solely reading this for pleasure. But the main reason I don’t like chapter titles is that it’s hard to come up with clever titles. Just coming up with the book title itself is a big challenge. Frankly, most writers use throw-away titles anyway–a word or phrase that simply describes what’s in the chapter. But the subject of the chapter doesn’t really matter, because if the reader liked chapter one, she is going to read chapter two, no matter what, and vice versa. So if the chapter title isn’t intriquing, why bother?

I once had to explain to a client for whom I was ghostwriting a memoir that a publishing agent will look at the first fifty pages or less and decide if she wants to read more based upon that, and the client got really serious and said, “Oh, so that first fifty pages has to be really good, huh?” I had to laugh. I told her the whole book has to be good. The first fifty pages should, by example, show how good the whole book is. There isn’t a cheap, quick way out of writing a good book. Cute titles won’t keep people reading. Only great characters, great drama, emotional insight, and all that good stuff keeps people reading. Wish I could tell you different, but them’s the breaks, folks.

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