Saturday, April 07, 2007

Taking a Header

"Never marry for money; ye can borrow it cheaper." -- Liz Carlyle, Three Little Secrets, Chapter Four

"To: Patricia C. Walker {} From Angeline Mangiamele {} Re: follow up (2)..." -- Rosina Lippi, Tied to the Tracks, Chapter Fifteen

"The path changes, so too must the traveller. -- Tarek Varena, ClanJoren" -- Yours Truly, Blade Dancer, Chapter One

Writing a chapter header, or beginning a chapter in a novel with a quotation, summary or something other than the text of the chapter itself, is the sort of detailing most novelists skip these days. It's a quaint custom, dating back to the days when every popular novel chapter started with a summary line:

Chapter One
In Which I Introduce Myself

Chapter Seven
A trip to town; Mrs. Fullahotair confides in Prudence

Chapter Fourteen
Jane Receives Her Richly Deserved Come-Uppance in the Form of Boils, Bed Bugs and a Bad Marriage

Sometimes when I find chapter headers in old books, I wonder if the practice started as a pre-emptive reader strike or as shorthand for what the writer needed to accomplish: In this chapter, I must ruin Mr. Rochester's nuptials, kill the mad wife and set fire to the place.

I rarely write chapter headers because they can be tricky. When I was putting together the outline for Blade Dancer, I wanted to work in a little about one of Kol's ancestors, Tarek Varena, whose philosophies changed Joren's ancient war faring culture. At the same time, I didn't want to drop in an infodump about a messianic figure who had been dead for five centuries. Then I wanted to tag the chapters with something other than numbers or titles. Using Tarek's philosophies (the prime influence on modern Jorenian culture from my worldbuilding) as chapter headers solved all of those problems.

Anyone can toss in a real or made-up quotation to create a chapter header; really inventive headers that contribute something solid to the novel are more rare (and that's mainly why I find them so tricky.) Two novels that I think have the most original, effective chapter headers I've found are in Rosina Lippi's Tied to the Tracks and Frank Herbert's Dune.

How do you guys feel about chapter headers? Do they add to the reading experience, or distract you from it? What would be an appropriate header for the chapter you're working on right now?


  1. The only author, YA-wise, I've seen pull off any type of chapter header is Cornelia Funke. She quotes various books at the beginning of her chapters in Inkheart and Inkspell, and that really adds to the...well, bookish mood of the books.

    On principle, though, I'd have to say that I'm not fond of the idea of mini-summaries at the beginning of chapters. I'd prefer to be wholly surprised by where the story goes.

    And as for my chapters...I don't have any, just yet. Chapters come later. Right now I'm concentrating on moving the plot along.

  2. I enjoy chapter headings when they add to the immersion of a world, like the ones in Dune. I also love the quotes from "The Book of Counted Sorrows" that Dean Koontz invented in his novels.

    ps--thanks for your answer to my question on yesterdays 'friday 20'


  3. THE WIRE, which is described as a novel written for television, does this with episodes. They have a quote from the actual episode that sums up the feel and tone. If each season is a novel, then each ep is a chapter.

  4. Anonymous9:40 AM

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  5. I am not for much for the summary of the chapter but I find the ones with quotes amusing. The books that come to mind are ones by Robert Asprin.

  6. When reading, I guess my outlook on headings depends on the mood I'm in, and whether the headings are pertinent to the story. The worst headings end up as a distraction, and I try to ignore them.

    I used quotes to head the chapters of my first book. It was hard, but I sorted through hundreds of quotations to find just the right one for each chapter ( is great for that) - one that in some way was related to what the chapter was about. I think I did a really good job, and maybe someday someone other than my beta readers will get to read them. =oD

  7. Since I write in Scrivener I title my scenes. The current one is, "The Show Must Go On."

  8. I don't write chapter headers nearly as detailed as those. Most of mine are purely so I can reference what's going on when I come back and don't necessarily remember what I've written. They also are just a couple words, or a short phrase...something that gives me an idea of the themes or main ideas of the chapter. They would probably work more as a teaser for the reader, should they remain attached into actual publication.

  9. I've always liked chapter headers; I find them tantalizing tidbits of what's to come, like appetizers for the main course of the chapter.

    I've never used them in a book, though. Were I to use one on the chapter I'll be working on next as I start rewriting my current novel in the wake of a long conversation with my editor, it would be:

    Chapter 1: In Which Chris Almost Drowns and Decides to Destroy His World

  10. Anonymous11:41 AM

    I like the quote ones; Dune did the best job, putting in 'historical' information and other tidbits that gave so much depth to the world. I've never tried it with a book.

  11. I loved the chapter head in Tied to the Tracks.

  12. If they are entertaining on their own, I love them. Otherwise, I don't care if they're there or not.

  13. Laurie R. King did them brilliantly in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. The headers were all quotes from a book on beekeeping and particularly queens.

  14. I like them when they're well done, and possibly tease me into wanting to continue. Can't say I've tried them, but maybe I'll consider it in a nice, flirty historical.

    A header for my current chapter-in-progress? Ugh...

    "The hot-blooded blonde in the ice-blue room."

  15. I really like headers, particularly in the form of quotes. Most get me smiling before I read word one in the chapter.

  16. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I think that a header that declares what the chapter is going to be about can be a great self challenge. When the chapter is done, I ask myself if I gave the reader exactly what I told them and nothing of what they would expect.

    Some of the wittiest chapter headers I've read lately have come from Christopher Moore.

  17. Anonymous2:21 PM

    Oh, and the chapter I just finished was named "Discomfort Food"

  18. I love them. Its like a teaser to the chapter. Something to perhaps mull over as I read it.

  19. Although I've never been tempted to do them in my own work, I do love them in the books I've read them in so far. They've always added something to the mix.

  20. I have a bad habit of not even noticing when chapters have headings. I think I read David Copperfield three times before I spotted them. So they're a bit wasted on me :). (I'm the person who can be overheard chuntering, "Introduction? Don't want that. Prologue? Never mind that. Where does the STORY start? Ah, here!")

    I don't write in chapters. In fact, chaptering a WIP is almost the last thing I do. I do however like to start a book with a (made-up) relevant quote. You know, the sort of thing an editor makes you delete ;).

  21. I love chapter headers and quotes. The ones in Dune were so good I was dying to join the Bene Gesserit by the time I'd finished reading the book. ;)

    Frazier also has wonderful chapter/scene headers. They're tantalizing teasers that make want to read more.

  22. I still remember the chapter headers in Dune. I also thought the headers in Three Men in a Boat were very funny.

    My current chapter would be "Houston, we have lift-off."

  23. As Michelle already mentioned, I remember Asprin's headers with corrupt delight.
    I rather like them - unless they are an attempt to add on "deep" not justified by the associated chapter.

  24. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Tailchaser's Song has quotes as headers, and I loved them. I don't know why, but they just worked for me. It's the only book I can really say that for, honestly.

    For my own writing, I find the numbers easier - maybe because I don't want to give any hints, or maybe because I'm an organic writer and, if I used one, the odds are my writing brain would veer in a different direction, adding to my revisions.

    Still, for fun, I guess a header for the current chapter I'm editing would be The Silent Farewell or something along those lines.

  25. Interesting coincidence to read a blog about chapter headings during the time when I'm thinking of doing them on the w-i-p. I don't want quotes, unless I have the character make them up for herself. I'd rather do a clever play on words for each. I think. This will all come down to whether I can actually come up with said p-o-w for each chapter. Thanks for the topic!


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