Well, since I seem to be writing an episodic novel/novella at the moment (it’s called “Liminal Rites”and it can be found here – it’s also updated every night at 22:30 GMT) – I thought that I’d write an article about coming up with good chapter titles. The art of writing chapter titles seems to be going into decline slightly these days and many novels (or at least the ones I’ve read) just have chapter numbers and nothing else. Still, I feel that well-written chapter titles can really add a lot to a story for several reasons.
Firstly, it provides your readers an overview of the story as a whole. Secondly, there are a lot of fun things you can do with chapter titles (more on that later). Thirdly, it will help you – as a writer- to geek out about your story and, finally, it can make your readers more curious about what will happen later in the story.
So, without any further ado, here are six ways to come up with good chapter titles:
1) Choose a single word or a few words which sums up the chapter: This is the most obvious way to write a chapter title, but it’s a good idea to make sure that you do something slightly more inventive than just using keywords (like you might do when you were posting something on the internet) for all of your chapter titles. Ideally, the word/words which sum up your chapter should have a double meaning of some kind (for example, chapter nine of “Liminal Rites” will be titled ‘This Place Is Dead’).
Likewise, using a short quote from the dialogue or narration (no more than 6-8 words) in your chapter can be a good way to come up with a chapter title. This is especially useful if the quote has a slightly different meaning, on it’s own, than it does in the context of your story.
Naming one or two things which appear in your chapter can also be a good way to come up with a chapter title – especially if it’s something intriguingly unusual (for example, the prologue of “Liminal Rites” is titled “Rasputin And The Mammoth”)
2) Find an old-fashioned word which sums up the main part of your chapter: This can be done seriously or for laughs, but it can really add a sense of mystery and grandeur to your chapter titles. What’s more, these days, you can just use a search engine to find old words rather than having to trudge through a thesaurus.
This probably won’t work for every chapter, but it’s a technique which can come in handy (for example, chapter eight of “Liminal Rites” is titled “Tasseomancy”, which is the old fashioned word for reading tea leaves)
3) Use place and character names: Using place names for your chapter titles can be a good way of introducing a new location in your story, especially if it has a slightly unusual name. Likewise, it can be used to add a sense of mystery to your chapter too – especially if the place name sounds incredibly ordinary too. However, if you use ordinary place names for your chapter title too often, then this might end up becoming annoying or boring.
Likewise, you can also introduce a new character by using their name as the title for the chapter where they make their first appearance.
4) Turn to television for inspiration: One way of getting a good sense of what does and doesn’t work as a chapter title is to look at episode titles for TV shows that you like. Many TV shows (or at least detective, comedy and sci-fi shows) often use interesting episode titles both in order make prospective viewers curious enough to watch an episode and also as a way of keeping the fans interested in the series.
Yes, there are a lot of cliched episode titles – but if you’re looking for examples of good chapter titles, you can do a lot worse than looking at episode titles for TV shows.
5) Use your chapter titles as part of your story: This is really fun to do and there are a lot of different ways you can do this (which depend on the story that you’re writing). But, to give you one example, I wrote an (unpublished) sci-fi thriller novella in 2010 called “Ephemera” and chapter sixteen ends with the narrator throwing two grenades at some henchmen who are chasing her and counting down the time until they explode. Chapter seventeen is titled “Boom!”.
As I said, there are many ways to make your chapter titles a part of the story itself and I can’t really give you any solid advice on this (since every story is different). But, if you see a chance to make your chapter titles part of your story, then do it. You won’t regret it.
6) Geeky in-jokes and references: As long as it’s relevant to what happens in your chapter, then you can have a lot of fun with this too. Not only that, if your readers have the same interests as you – then it’ll either make them laugh and/or become more interested in your story. If your readers don’t understand the reference, then they’ll probably just ignore it and carry on reading the story – so, you can’t really lose with this.
I’m not sure if there are any copyright issues with using references – although it probably depends on the level of detail/length of the reference and whether you change the context of it significantly etc…. But, on the whole, small references generally seem to be alright (although I’m obviously not a lawyer or an expert on this subject).
Ideally, you should probably just hint at something when you’re referencing it in your chapter title rather than directly quoting from anything (unless it’s the title of something- since, although titles can be trademarked, they aren’t covered by copyright. Again, I’m not a lawyer – be sure to check the laws in your country too).
Likewise, using geeky in-jokes about your own story in the chapter titles can be a good way to provide “added value” for readers who are re-reading your story too.
Anyway, I hope that this has been useful 🙂