I’m an author, and I’m also a professional writing coach with several years’ experience. In working with writers and published authors, my job is often about helping writers see “what’s missing.” That includes the usual things: what’s missing in characterizations, plotting, setting, suspense, tension, dialogue, movement, hooks for readers, and much more.
One simple thing I’ve found missing—even among my professional author friends in groups I belong to—are chapter titles or headings within novels. The books often also lack a Table of Contents.
Chapter titles and a Table of Contents are sales tools that savvy writers today need to use whenever possible. Readers almost demand those items.
A useful—and even interesting or exciting—Table of Contents is essential for the “Look Inside” that Amazon Kindle features for book buyers, but there are other reasons to create chapter titles and a Table of Contents.
When buyers thumb through a paper book at a local bookstore, they often check for the Table of Contents—especially now because they are used to it from online shopping. An enticing Table of Contents for a paper book is just as important as one for e-books.
Buyers also thumb through the opening pages of novels, perhaps the first two or three chapters or even more. What are readers looking for? Hooks. Theme. Excitement. Fun. Suspense. They are looking for clues to the flavor of the novel’s storyline or theme, and clues to the author’s bent. They are looking for information!
If there are inviting chapter headlines or titles, it can help create an effective impression and prompt a sale.
There’s also this: Every inch of a manuscript’s page is available to the writer to create messaging or entertainment or theme or “brand.” That includes the open field of space where we type in “Chapter One” and “Chapter Two” and so on.
Chapter headlines can also serve as an outline while writing, or even create a mood to help the writer stay on track with the flavor of the storytelling.
Children’s books have used that chapter opening space well over the years. Author Bibi Belford (one of my past retreat graduates) uses the chapter headline space effectively in Another D for Deedee, a middle-grade novel. The character’s life is full of “Ds,” including her diagnosis with diabetes. Some of Belford’s chapter titles are: “D is for Duh,” “D is for Drama,” “D is for Detective,” and “D is for Disaster.”
Robert Harris, in his amazing suspense book, Pompeii, illustrates mastery with chapter titles as “reader/buyer enticement” by using three different items or techniques at the start of each chapter. He skips using conventional numbers, and instead uses intriguing captions PLUS a day-and-time countdown chapter by chapter until Mount Vesuvius erupts. He also uses another technique—real scientific information. So, while you’re reading about these wonderful characters who have no clue a mountain is about to blow up in three days and then two days, you’re also receiving true information that makes you feel smarter and intrigued and lends itself to the tension building.
Popular author Alexander McCall Smith is another master selling a novel through chapter headings and table of contents. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency he keeps things simple yet charming and suspenseful. He uses conventional numbering, but he adds titles or headlines including: The Daddy, Living with the Cousin and the Cousin’s Husband, What You Need To Open a Detective Agency, Why Don’t You Marry Me?, A Lot of Lies, The Witch Doctor’s Wife. Who could resist a book with those titles!
My publishers in the past were remiss about this Table of Contents and chapter-heading thing, but no more.
In my recent novel, Undercover Fudge (June 2021), I planned ahead for my Table of Contents with chapter headlines. I wanted to evoke fun and use clues so buyers would know right away this was a cozy-mystery story with tongue-in-cheek actions and humor. Here are a few titles in the Table of Contents: Rules Are Boring, Where Bodies Are Never Found, Grandpa Loves Incriminating Evidence, Clues Come Calling, Dead People Don’t Talk, A Missing Phone Calls Home.
Sometimes quotes help create interesting clues at the head of each chapter, but make sure you have cleared any copyright permission needed.
And lyrics? You can’t use lyrics unless you have permission or unless the copyright protection has run out. But you can use song titles.
Authors often need to remind their publishers about including a Table of Contents or making sure it shows up for the online “Look Inside.” Fellow author Laurie Buchanan, a member of Blackbird Writers Discussion Forum, uses quotes at the start of every chapter of her thriller novels, including her debut, Indelible. Here’s an example: “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it. ~ Rose Tremain.” I noticed the quotes weren’t showing up in the table of contents in the “Look Inside” at Amazon Books. I mentioned that to Laurie and she’s contacting her publisher.
A Table of Contents is still a relatively new concept for many in the novel business.
So, fellow reader, writer or author, what book have you read lately with those “extras” on the first page of every chapter? How did they add to the experience of reading?
What techniques are you using to create your Table of Contents material?