Sunday, 20 November 2011

Give me a title!

It's taken for granted a book has a title, even if some stretch the definition, we're familiar with it and expect it. What about titles for chapters in a work of general fiction? In non-fiction chapter headings and titles frame concepts, serving as a thematic anchor point so what purpose do they have in fiction, if any?

I asked one writer friend why they titled individual chapters, the response was, why only go to the trouble of titling the whole work? You owe your writing more than that. A fair point, writing takes a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat, tears, repairs to partition walls... maybe that one's not universal. So is this a 'must do' for fiction writers?

In historical fiction chapter titles are common, providing information about time and location as this changes during the narrative. I think of this as another type of thematic anchor. With books like Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob to Zo√ęt, location shifts or character viewpoint changes mean the title is important for separation and clarity.

Why stop at titles then? I've seen short poems such as haiku, and quotations from literature or history as chapter headers. I'm not clear if these are viewed by the reader or author as a device to show writing versatility and knowledge; 'I'm not only a fiction writer'; or if they are simple pretension.

I'm not convinced titles of chapters, poetry or quotations always add anything to a narrative, I don't know a lot about writing etiquette but as a reader I crave clear story-telling, uncluttered by irrelevancies. This is no hard and fast rule, if something makes the main text more profound or brings a particular character trait through then it needs to be included.

I read a book by Marc Nash, A, B & E, the protagonist is a fugitive gangster's moll holed up on a Mediterranean island amid the lager louts and gangs of drunken young women. She's telling her story, amongst other things, to a sometimes distracted bar-fly, during which they both drink copious cocktails. At the end of the chapter are recipes for cocktails, neat. These aren't moving the plot forward exactly but they work somehow in adding to the heady atmosphere of the memoir. Think 'Copacabana' if Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino shot the video and you're getting to the dark and gritty reminiscence.

So then readers and writers, what do you think? Cocky pretension or subtle plot addition?


  1. I'm definitely with you on chapter titles, with a few exceptions, I'm not sure they achieve anything at all. I also tend to skip over lines of poetry or quotes, which often appear at the beginning of a novel. They only seem to add something to the experience when I've finished the story and decide look back.

  2. But you have to decide to look back, it's not automatic when finishing a book is it? I'm sure you're not alone in skip over the poetry, I have done so myself although not gone back after reading to reflect on them

  3. What an interesting (and timely) post. I write my novels and books with chapter titles and then number them on the final edit. With the novel I am currently writing I was considering leaving the chapter titles in...

  4. "why only go to the trouble of titling the whole work? You owe your writing more than that," A tad pretentious, n'est-ce pas? Give your chapters titles if you want/need to and don't if you don't. Name them with species of butterflies for all I care. Pfffth. Sorry.