23 March 2012

By The Numbers

So, the other day I was blog-surfing and came upon this post by literary agent Vickie Motter of Andrea Hurst Lit. If you're a writer, read her blog. There is awesome information there. Anyway, the other day I found this post about chapter titles in books and I wanted to bring that discussion here.

As a rule, I hate chapter titles. As a reader, it's because they often give away too much of what will happen (no spoilers, dammit!). Over the years I've learned to just skip them. There is no such thing as a table of contents in a novel, I breeze past it. Chapter titles are blurred out in my mind. Very very rarely have they worked in a book I've read. As a writer, I have different reasons to loathe titles.



Way back in the days of yore when I started writing, I experimented with chapter titles. Usually, this meant that I'd finish one chapter, come up with a title for the next one and keep going. I hate that. Why? Because it can skew not just a reader's thinking of a chapter, but also the writer's of how it's supposed to be. And, as a story evolves, a chapter title can become entirely inaccurate. It can lose any and all meaning it once had, making it just a string of words to make you stumble from one plot point to the next. So, in general I avoid chapter titles and stick with good old numbers.

And then, TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES happened.

Like the trickster gods angling for my heroine's soul, this book threw a few monkey wrenches at me in terms of process, preference and style. I wrote the rough draft with nothing more than a number as the chapter heading. Did a few editing passes and realized there was a crucial event in Catherine Sharp's past that I'd only told about...and I needed to show it. This pivotal event needed screentime. So I opened a new word document. Since it could've fit in between any number of existing scenes, I gave it a title as if it were a piece of short fiction. "Scar Tissue". Ironically enough, when I started working on that  piece, the Chili Peppers song by the same name came up on ye olde shuffle.

No problem. Finished that. Went through and plugged it into the rest of the story. Did another proofing pass so I could send something clean-ish (but still raw) to my beta readers. (I prefer to send them something less polished at first for various reasons, but that's another post entirely.)  While I'm doing this pass, my shuffle keeps throwing songs at me that provide the perfect soundtrack to this book. Titles or lyrics jump out and stick to the page, mating with the appropriate scene.

Next thing I know, every chapter in my novel has a title. Each one is indicative of the mood of that chapter, or has a deeper meaning for the arc of the series. Each one is a Red Hot Chili Peppers reference.

Now, other stuff I write? Eff chapter titles. Still can't stand them. But for this project, the titles work and fit. They don't tip my hand, but if you listen to all of the songs, you'd get a damn fine playlist and a soundtrack to the story.


Song titles as chapter titles may sound a bit cheesy, but remember earlier when I said that there have been very few books where chapter titles work? The one that stands out is HOLD ME CLOSER, NECROMANCER by Lish McBride. The song titles give the slightest hint of mood for a given scene, but reveal nothing. That, I can get behind.

As I've been plotting/outlining/drafting companion pieces and sequels to TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES, certain scenes pop into my head with a title attached. I'm sorry, but when I'm doing a scene sketch (think of it like a storyboard only instead of drawings, I have vague dialogue and minor blocking) and my Vox Crania calls out, "This is called 'Screams and Whispers from In Between'," and I get mad chills? Yeah, the title stays. Otherwise, it gets a number and we move on to take care of all that in post.

So yeah, that's my personal feeling on chapter titles.

How about you? Any bias one way or the other as a reader or writer?

3 comments:

Stace said...

Never really thought about it in depth. I guess I do read chapter titles, but it's 50/50 whether there will be words or numbers these days.

While writing, I have a couple words that title my Word document, but I've never really considered using chapter titles at all in a finished product. Those are just numbers.

The song titles strike me more the way a quotation would, a reference to deepen associations. Most chapter titles seem more like either mini-spoilers or their opposite, things the author uses to throw off your expectations, so they don't have to work so hard at surprising you with the contents themselves. I'd much rather an author build that expectation into the work itself than take the easy route of a wonky title.

Jamie Wyman said...

agreed, stace. i'll take a single digit over a shitty title any day. :)

Alyssa said...

I'm firmly in the "chapter titles are too spoilery" camp. Hate 'em. Even when they fit, I'd just really rather the author had not locked in that mental image for me.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...