In the past, novels had titles for each chapter, sort of like this: Chapter the XXIIIrd, in which Lady Jane drops her handkerchief in the garden and bumps into the wrong person while looking for it.
Not any more. In books — and ebooks — of the present day I generally see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. Or simply 1, 2, 3. Sometimes it’s Roman numerals, (I, II, III) or spelled out numbers (One, Two, Three), but that’s about it.
Maybe it’s time to revisit chapter titles.
Books for children have never abandoned chapter titles, and with good reason. They help a reader navigate the book if he or she needs to go back and check something already read in a previous chapter. And chapter titles are a sort of sneak preview, tantalizing without revealing too much.
Having read and published a number of ebooks in the past several years, I’ve realized that looking back for something you’ve already read isn’t easy. Sure, you can search words, but if you want to find a particular scene without a distinctive keyword, you pretty much have to try page numbers at random. That’s harder on the eyes than flipping pages in a printed book. I’ve added linked tables of contents to my ebooks, but that nice list of numbered chapters helps the reader only if they happen to remember that the scene they’re trying to find was in Chapter 5 or whatever.
Chapter titles, being memorable and mnemonic, make it easier to find one’s way around a book. Even short or cryptic titles (The Summons, An Encounter, Danger!) are better landmarks for the reader than numbers alone.
Then there’s that sneak preview aspect. Writers labour over their brief book descriptions to make them enticing without revealing too much. Chapter titles can be a whimsical supplement to the book description. Because they appear in the first few pages, chapter titles are seen by potential readers in ebook samples and previews.
My work in progress, She Who Comes Forth, frequently makes reference to The Egyptian Book of the Dead by E.A. Wallis Budge. It’s not surprising that its sixteen chapter titles were inspired by those in Budge’s work, such as “The Chapter of the Pillow” or “The Chapter of Not Dying a Second Time.”
Here are my chapter titles for She Who Comes Forth
1 The Chapter of Experiencing Departure and Disappointment
2 The Chapter of Experiencing Insult and Injury
3 The Chapter of Entering the Tomb of a King
4 The Chapter of Undertaking a Difficult Task
5 The Chapter of Meeting One Who Is Beautiful
6 The Chapter of Intoxication, of Tardiness and Triumph.
7 The Chapter of Eating and Drinking in a Place of Mystery
8 The Chapter of Rising into Air and Falling to Earth
9 The Chapter of Experiencing Unpleasantness and Being Driven Out
10 The Chapter of Making a Crossing to the West
11 The Chapter of Seeking the Right-Handed One
12 The Chapter of a Passage in Darkness
13 The Chapter of the Red Dress and the Sharp Blade
14 The Chapter of the Heart and the Egg
15 The Chapter of Speaking the Truth and Hiding It
16 The Chapter of Going Forth
I had to be in the right frame of mind to make these up — not too serious. The idea is to hint, rather than specify.
After the heavy work of writing and rewriting, making up chapter titles is a way to celebrate and ornament your creation. I recommend it!