She Who Comes Forth book chapter heading with moon glyph

Chapters: Short, Long, Titled?

I must admit to a cavalier attitude toward chapter divisions. In several of my novels, I assigned them without much thought and didn’t bother giving them titles. Numbers were enough. When I started reading a lot of ebooks, though, I realized that chapter titles make it easier to navigate within an ebook, because they remind you of key incidents in case you need to go back and check a detail. The 19th century convention of providing a mini-synopsis of each chapter in the table of contents would be helpful for the ebook reader.

I used chapter titles in She Who Comes Forth and will do so in my current WIP.

I wrote She Who Comes Forth chapter by chapter, but while writing the first draft of my current WIP, I didn’t give chapters much thought. When I turned the handwritten manuscript into a Word document, I stuck in asterisks and blank lines between scenes, but I don’t want to have as many chapters as this would produce. Really short chapters may be right for some books, but not this one.

As I’ve worked through the first 40% of the second draft, I took a stab at adding chapter breaks. Both where the breaks happen and the chapter titles are subject to change. In fact, I really should have saved this task until the work as a whole was closer to completion.

It seems natural to insert a chapter break right after a conclusion of some sort, such as the end of a party, an outing, or an argument, at the point where something is figured out or resolved. With this approach, if you picture the plot of a story as a series of waves of different heights, chapters should end in the troughs.

The problem with this is that it may create a series of letdowns for readers. After a conclusive chapter ending, something new and intriguing is needed at the start of the next one to re-inflate the balloon of readers’ expectations. Readers are most likely to stop reading if a beginning isn’t compelling enough. Why would we want to create this sort of challenge for ourselves and our readers?

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Recently I read a piece of advice to the effect that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger, because we writers must assume that our readers are so fickle they must be tantalized into reading on, with the ultimate goal of a review that says, “This book is a total page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Which suggests that a chapter should end, and the next one begin, at the top of a wave.

For books other than thrillers, the term “cliffhanger” stretches to cover more situations than life-or-death physical perils. Maybe it’s better to suggest that each chapter ends with something intriguing, a question planted in the reader’s brain to ensure that they read the next one, and the next and the next. But distorting a perfectly good plot simply to engineer cliffhangers seems like a bad idea to me.

Photo by Cade Prior on Pexels.com

If the book isn’t a thriller full of perilous situations, the writer may wish to consider ending chapters at points where a question arises. What’s in the letter that just arrived? How will Character A react to the provocative comment by Character B? What will the characters do when their car breaks down during the outing? The idea is to end the chapter on the rising side of a trough, not at the bottom.

Instead of contriving cliffhanger-type situations, find them where they already exist in the work and place chapter endings there, in situations of questioning, uncertainty, revelation, and rising tension. Those should be there already, so why not make use of them?

A confession–as a reader, I don’t care much about chapters. I can stop reading anywhere, knowing the book will be there in a few minutes or the next day, and I can pick up where I left off. Once I’m committed to reading a book, I read to the end, even if I don’t find it enthralling. A book has to be abysmal (in my opinion) before I throw it on the DNF pile. Chapters with titles are useful, as I’ve already noted, but mainly as a way of labelling key events in the story for reference.

I wrote and scheduled this post a week ago. It’s entirely coincidental that THIS OTHER POST on the same topic, but with a different emphasis, appeared almost at the same time.

How do you deal with chapters? Carefully or casually? Numbers, titles, or both? And when you read, do you always read to the end of a chapter before stopping?

Featured image: A page from She Who Comes Forth, showing chapter title.

54 comments

  1. When I started writing my chapters read as at best collection of short stories, at worse as suggesting to the reader ‘Oh before you go, there’s something else to mention’. On reviewing these seemed to be clumsy and a bit unwieldly, too much happening.
    Some of my reading matter involved action thrillers with short ‘punchy’ chapters of maybe 1,000 words, when surveying the author’s bio it was noted they were also script writers for TV or films. Thus they knew how to achieve the balance. Not my forte.
    Eventually I settled on a rule of thumb. If it’s more than 5 pages on my Word doc, check if it needs a break. This proved quite fun. Sometimes chapters ended not on cliff hangers, but on semi-ethical questions, and maybe a humorous aside. But always on something of a ‘annnddd cut!’.

    On titles: With my last volume there were experiments; however as the work extended into 80+ chapters (It’s a fantasy epic I tell you!) I ran out of good overall phrases, nearly ending up with a chapter heading along the lines of ‘There’s a lot going on here folks’, which we will agree is not conducive to even Fantasy-lite.

    On both topics I guess, overall much will depend on the writer’s intentions, style and possibly nature of the narrative. The ‘writingverse’ is a pretty big place.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I admit the system does stretch / shrink a bit at times so it’s a ‘rule of thumb’ set up. There are times when one chapter has morphed into two, or a bit of one has joined up with another. I’d categorise it as ‘something which sort of works’

        (currently in a very thunderous mood….uploading my book and when it comes to the cover Amazon says ‘error occurred’ but gives no guidance, I hope by the time they phone back my mood will have settled from visceral to simply ‘cold questioning’)

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I had never thought about the advantage of having chapter titles because of ebooks. I’m going to start titling my chapters! In fact, yesterday I started a new ebook, and I rolled my eyes while paging through the front matter because of the list of chapters was just numbers, a waste of a page. Chapter titles would have gotten me excited about what I was going to read.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. A very timely piece, Audrey. I’m wrestling with this one at the moment on the current WIP. I do tend to use chapter headings at the draft stage, but they don’t always survive into “publication”. They help me pin down what it is I’m actually trying to say, if that doesn’t sound too obvious. Your mention of the Victorian habit of a full chapter synopsis has got me thinking though. I’m tempted to try that, possibly as an aid to redrafting, or maybe even leave them in – I’m feeling reckless.

    Not writing thrillers, my chapters tend to avoid the cliffhanger. They also tend to be short – say 1-2 thousand words, which seems to suit the ebook format better. I try to have them come up with a question, or pose a piece of the puzzle to be solved.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. My chapters seem to end intuitively, usually where something is concluded or an outcome is hinted at or where a natural cliffhanger occurs. I try to keep my chapters uniform in length – from 6-12 Word doc pages. I had more trouble chapterizing The Termite Queen than my later books, probably because I was trying for the first time to write something I could finish. I always number and title my chapters, although in TQ I use numbers and epigraphs, no titles. Since The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars is a fictional biography, I added dates following each chapter title.
    And, yes, I think ebooks without chapter titles are much harder to navigate; a linked ToC stating the titles helps tremendously. When I’m reading a book, I prefer to finish a chapter before I stop reading. Makes keeping the continuity easier for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I wrote She Who Comes Forth with the intention to produce a piece for my critique group every month. Those sections ended up being the final chapters. In my current WIP (the sequel), I’m figuring out chapters after finishing the second draft. It’s not as organic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I use chapter titles with numbers and titles. Using just numbers is boring. I use the titles as teasers, I guess, and it’s often a challenge to come up with something short and intriguing. I end chapters, as a rule, at the end of a scene. I don’t worry about cliff-hangers because I don’t write thrillers…and don’t read them, either. I do my best to make the reader want to know what is going to happen, though. Will she? Won’t he? How is he/she going to solve this problem? I like humor. My current WIP is about an artist, and the final chapter title (which really doesn’t matter since is IS the final one) is “Drawing Conclusions.”

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I believe we’ll be talking about this in our next video and I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to say. I rarely use chapter titles, but I am in my WIP because it seemed to be the type of story that needs them.

    As for length, I have no idea how and when I decide to end a chapter and start a new one. I do know that I try for consistent chapter length in each book, but the length varies from story to story.

    And I’m still stuck on this idea that every chapter has to end with a “cliffhanger” and has to begin with something that grabs the reader. I just don’t read books that way. The larger story and how it is written is far more important to me than what the end and beginning is for each chapter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Mark. Your comment just triggered a thought about chapter endings that I would consider the opposite of a cliff hanger, in which I experience something of great emotional import with a character, and I need a few moments to sit with that experience as it resonates before taking a deep breath and turning the page.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a great way to describe a viable alternative to the “cliff hanger” approach. As somebody else described on this topic, Cliff hangers or something similar at the end of every chapter starts to feel manipulative. Every story has its own flow, its own momentum. Let that occur naturally and you have a good story.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I hope I don’t do anything that’s viewed as reader manipulation. It’s a challenge for me on a lot of these topics. I honestly don’t spend much tine thinking about them when I’m writing. I have an idea and I just write to the idea.

            I haven’t taking any writing classes since high school English.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. As long as you don’t end the novel with “I woke up, and it was all a dream” or for 350 pages withhold the fact that the narrator is a dog, you should be okay. 😉

              All joking aside, having taken a number of writing classes can have a dampening effect on a writer’s creativity.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. Pretty sure I haven’t done any of those things. 😉

                Yeah. I’ve been to a couple of writing conferences and that’s about it. My on-going rebellion against “rules of writing” suggests a writing class wouldn’t work well.

                Liked by 2 people

              2. A writing class taught from the perspective of helping writers achieve their vision (not the instructor’s or classmates’ vision/axe to grind) for a particular piece could be valuable. I suspect that classes are few and far between.

                Liked by 2 people

  7. Interesting question. Was it Dickens who featured clues in his chapters like In which Pip or David or Oliver Finds Himself in….? Sometimes I stop at the end of a chapter, otherwise I stop when forced to by tiredness or interruptions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Those kinds of chapter titles could provide spoilers if carelessly worded. I admit I don’t know how often that happened, or if readers then cared. They are another device to consider for authors today, though.
      I really can–and do–stop reading in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Chapters are authorial contrivances used to break up the work. The fact of the matter is, TOCs in ebooks are useless, just as useless in paper books. I’ll never reference a TOC. It’s some sort of legacy carryover from a bygone era. “Doctor, do you recall the passage about the aconite, and its affect on the heart?” — “What, by god, man, check the table of contents. It’s in the chapter called Poisons, I believe.”

    Scrolling past all the garbage at the start of a ebook, jeeze, what a waste of bits.

    I recall some author reading my first paper novel, complaining that there should be blank pages after the ISBN and before the title page. What bullshit.

    Numbered chapters. Single word chapter titles. Quip titles. Epistolary entries. Quotes from philosophers. It’s all garbage I skip; author cleverness that detracts from the story. You think it’s important to your story? Write it into the plot or leave it the hell out.

    If I ever write another novel, unlikely now, but if I did, I’d just mark the natural pauses in the story line with two different asterisms (or, what I found are called a “dinkus”) ~~~ or • • •. And that would be it as far as cluing in a reader that they need to take a breath. Like you said, you stop where you stop, and your e-reader keeps track.

    As to: “Chapter titles sell more books?” Right.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do like chapter titles in ebooks as navigational aids, but never thought of them as marketing info. But then, I don’t market.
      I have to say I had fun with the chapters in She Who Comes Forth. I read the entire Egyptian Book of the Dead (Budge version) while writing that book, so aped the style of the chapter titles for mine. And the moon images at the head of each chapter actually correspond (to my knowledge) with what the moon was doing in the fall of 1962. So yes, it is an authorly contrivance. Apart from the navigation thing, chapters don’t mean much to me as a reader.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. LMAO! Grumpus. 😀 Seriously though, both my original Kindle and my current Fire tablet ‘skip’ every now and then. Or perhaps I inadvertently do the flipping by carrying it the wrong way. My point is, ebooks do skip and it’s bloody hard to find your place again. I know Amazon has updated the software such that it’s supposed to keep track, but I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve had to search for my place manually. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just going back to check if someone really said what you thought they did is hard enough that I don’t bother, whereas in a printed book, I’d be flipping back. But if you remember it was in the chapter called In the Cave, you might have a chance.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. The end of a scene/chapter thing? Sometimes the question is implied, sometimes it’s no more than knowing that this moment of ease can’t last because the whole thing isn’t done yet – it depends how the story is set up, but if the story question is clear enough, or building well, the endings that relate to the journey to get there will intrigue the reader more than a tacked on cliffhanger, which is best if organic to the character chasing the story question (in my mind, anyway).

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Very interesting Audrey, thank you. I’ve just finished writing another book, and am tempted to add chapter headings….As for chapter lengths, I read an interesting piece by a famous writer once, who advised making them as long or short as YOU fancy! I usually make mine end with either a hook or definite statement of some sort. As my story has such a lot of serious content at the outset as it’s set in Poland in WW2, when another tragic incident occurred, I deliberately wanted to make it brief and not laboured. Does the following work for you?
    Chapter 11
    “THE WEEK BEFORE Alex’s 30th birthday, Rebecca was pleased to catch the postman before she left for work as he delivered a book she had ordered from the Book Club by Christopher D. Knox. A murder mystery called “He Gave All.” She also had time to nip into the local bakery and order a simple birthday cake. Its candles.were never lit, nor the book read.”. (The next chapter is about the infamous Dam Buster incident, and of course explains what happened to poor Alex) Best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thanks, Joy. That the candles were never lit, nor the book read definitely suggests that something dire happens. It’s a contrast with the pleasant associations of receiving a book in the mail and ordering a birthday cake. I would read on to find out what happened.

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  11. I was wondering if this post was in response to THAT OTHER POST. After reading that post, I began seriously considering using chapter titles for my current Work in Progress. Your post is confirmation that I’m on the right track. I’m also very aware of chapter length, e.g., how short is too short? How variable is too variable? After reading your post, I’m thinking when I get to the revision stage, it might be a good idea to storyboard individual chapters as well as the entire book to make the best decision for where one ends and the next one begins. I’m saving your post as a resource for the questions I’ll need to ask myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Another good, thought-provoking post, Audrey. Like you, I haven’t given chapters much thought. I write first-person narrative episodic novels — very linear writing. Episode follows episode. My episodes are usually composed of 2/3 build-up, 1/3 action/resolution. There always seems to be natural “chunks” of scenes created by a change in location and/or time within these episodes which I make into my chapters.(While I write it.) Chapters are composed of one to six or seven scenes, which I somehow have came to number like sub-chapters, rather than to simply leave an empty line or two between scenes. I have no standard length for my chapters, and some of them can run rather long, so that numbered scenes might make for more memorable breakpoints within a long chapter than a blank line within a chapter.

    I title my chapters. In my two too long works, I titled the novella length episodes as “parts,” in the paper versions. Smashwords bounced those ebooks until I eliminated the part designation entirely. In the paper version of one book I just used the date without a chapter number, and in another called chapters “pieces.” Smashwords did not like those either, so there are chapters in all my ebooks.

    But really, why should we care about chapter structure at all? If the story you’ve written isn’t driving readers forward, I doubt that some sort of a hook or cliffhanger at the end of every chapter is going to do the job for you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It sounds like your approach to chapters is what I would call ‘organic,’ meaning you let the events in your plot suggest where they end. Funny that Smashwords would have a problem with parts. It might help not to include the parts in the linked TOC, because a part would have exactly the same starting point as one of the chapters. Even when I have parts, I continue the chapter numbering, so Part 2 would start with Chapter 10, for example. Readers would see Part 2 when they get there, but it wouldn’t have a link in the TOC.

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      1. It worked at the beginning, but after a while, after uploading new versions, I began to have the problem. I don’t include TOC myself, as they seem pointless in fiction. In non-fiction it is another matter. But I believe if you don’t do it, Smashwords will generate one, and therein lies the problem. At some point something changed and though my Part X headings were separate from my chapters and chapter numbering was continuous, they’d give me an error message in reference to the premium catalog about fixing the TOC. In the end, the only way I could get the new versions to work, was to eliminate the various Part X numbers and titles. No big deal, just one of those headaches like another commenter mentioned.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting post, Audrey. I’ve only used numbers for chapters, as that was how my publisher did it when the first book in my series was published in 2011. For consistency, I’ve kept it that way. I’ve read that giving titles is becoming more popular. They’re fun to read but, honestly, I never remember titles. It’s kind of a blind spot with me. I never remember song or movie titles either. I’m editing a lengthy urban fantasy which has 64 short chapters. The thought of coming up with 64 titles makes my head spin right now.
    Regarding chapter endings, cliffhangers and questions are certainly good tools, but I also like to end with something poignant, or a bit of foreshadowing or something a little bit humorous. The point is I vary it up, depending on what works best within the context of what I’ve written and what’s coming next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think chapter breaks and titles are sort of “optional extras” in novels. They may add a bit of sizzle, but aren’t as important as creating a good story. As a reader, I do find chapter titles useful for finding details I want to check.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I started writing longer stories when I was 12. The first one (a western thing I keep for personal amusement, given it really has no other value) had chapters. Most of my following ones didn’t, they were just one long story. In my twenties or thirties, I started transcribing on pc the ones which, with heavy editing, had literary value. (And yes, now 5 of them are published, but heavily edited from that initial point, and a novella was turned into a short stories collection, to be published next year).

    Then I split them into chapters. My chapters have numbers and names, like 3. The Northern Realms. Some novels had shorter chapters, a few had long ones. The latest editing split the longer chapters into shorter ones, finishing where the scene ended. It was better like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Reading – If, for some unknowable reason, I can’t read a book from cover to cover in one sitting, (with bodily function breaks, of course) which is my absolute preferred choice, I tend to stop reading at a soft, or quiet place in the story, whether it corresponds to a chapter ending or not.

    Writing – I don’t know why but my chapters seem to come in at around 2000-ish words without me really trying. 😀 … and I do like nutting our chapter titles. Which has the added benefit of helping me focus on what bit of the overall story arc I’m trying to tell in each chapter. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Physical books probably don’t ‘need’ chapter titles because you can easily mark your spot, but ebooks have a nasty habit of suddenly just zooming ahead or behind, leaving you with the frustrating task of trying to regain your place manually. Where you place your chapter headings/titles is another issue entirely.

    <>

    It seems as if there is a whole industry devoted to creating a ‘formula’ for how to write a bestseller. And it seems to be working, as shown by [many] of the books on the bestseller lists. But those are not the books that I read. To me, they’re cookie cutter stories. Read one and you’ve read them all.

    Elitist? Probably. Sour grapes? Even more probably – I’d love to have a readership a fraction that large. The thing is though…how many of those books will be remembered in 20 or 30 years time? And does it matter if the author gets to bank a tidy sum in the interim?

    I’m old fashioned enough to believe that writing should be a vocation, not a production line.

    <>

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, let’s just remember that the Big 5 (or is it 4?) are owned by multinational companies for whom profit is all. Books are products, and those best-sellers are promoted by professional marketing teams. We indie authors are one-person teams and let’s face it, some of us are a bit quirky. Which is why we produce some pretty darned interesting books (that few read, compared to those other authors). I really do think the two types of publishing are totally different worlds.

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