Sunday, October 31, 2021

NAME OR NUMBER: Dealing With Chapters

Zoë Sharp


Back when I wrote my first novel, I think it had about twenty-five chapters, each with scene breaks, plus an epilogue to explain what happened in the aftermath. These days, I’m more likely to write the same number of words but have a hundred and twenty-five chapters.


There’s no doubt that, when you look at the Table of Contents that appears in every eBook, that great long list of sequential numbers is lacking something in appeal.


At one point, it seemed that books always had chapter titles—sometimes instead of numbers, sometimes as well. If you pick up a Margery Allingham, or a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you tend to find chapter titles more often than not.


Some contemporary writers go in for chapter titles, or often use the time and day, or time and place instead. In One Fine Day in The Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre uses a time, location, and a chapter title: ‘09:00 – nether Kilbokie – elite unit assembles’ for example. Or ‘09:50 – Glasgow airport – lost soul in transit’.


The reason this subject came up was because of my current work-in-progress—the follow-up to The Last Time She Died. I usually create separate Word documents for each chapter while I’m writing it. Once it’s more or less done, I drop it into the file containing the entire book so far. It just makes things a bit easier to deal with. Because, when you’re dealing with a third-person, multiple-viewpoint narrative, it’s very easy to get hopelessly lost, I find. So, when I name the file, as well as the chapter number and the character whose POV I’m following, I’ve now also started adding a word or two to tell me what the chapter’s about.


But that’s made me wonder if I should be adding that kind of chapter title into the book. The closest I’ve come to this was in the second Lakes crime thriller, Bones in the River, when I numbered the chapters, but also broke the books into Parts, each labelled with the day of the week. And I did a Charlie Fox short story, ‘Across the Broken Line’, which hopped backwards and forwards in time, so each section was titled to pin that down.


I thought I’d take a quick look through some of the titles written by my fellow Murder Is Everywhere bloggers, to see how they handled the subject of chapters and what to call them.


In Blood Tango, Annamaria Alfieri begins the book in Buenos Aires 1945, and each chapter has a day and date rather than a number. The whole book takes place over twelve days. While Strange Gods has an initial place and date: ‘The Protectorate of British East Africa 1911’ and then goes on to numbered chapters. Annamaria does the same with City of Silver: ‘Potosí – Alto Perú – 1650’ and then we’re on to straightforward numbering.


Cara Black’s long-running Aimée Leduc series, set in Paris, does not have chapter numbers at all. Cara uses the day and approximate time, so Murder in the Marais, for example, begins with ‘Paris: November 1993’, then has ‘Wednesday’ as the Part title, and ‘Wednesday morning’ as the chapter title. A later book, Murder in the Bastille, has ‘Paris: October 1994’, then goes straight into the chapter titles of ‘Monday Evening’, ‘Later Monday Night’, ‘Wednesday Afternoon’, etc. 


Cara’s standalone novel, Three Hours in Paris, has—by its very nature—a compressed timescale. Here Cara sets the scene with ‘Sunday, June 23, 1940 – Nine Days into the German Occupation of Paris – Montmartre, Paris | 6:15 a.m. Paris time’. And then goes on with day, date, location, and time for each chapter following.


Caro Ramsay also uses dated chapters for some of her Anderson and Costello Scottish-set detective series. Absolution, for example, starts with ‘Anna – Glasgow, 1984’, then ‘Alan – Glasgow, 2006’ and moves on through seven days from September 30 to October 7, plus an epilogue. By The Sideman, however, Caro is using numbering, with the date as a sub-title for each chapter. Was this a conscious change?


Leighton Gage, Jeff Siger’s Andreas Kaldis Greek series, Susan Spann's Hiro Hattori series—set in 16th century Japan—my own Charlie Fox novels, and Sujata Massey’s contemporary, Japanese-set Rei Shimura books all use basic chapter numbering. Nice, simple, and it works.


For her Perveen Mistry series, set in 1920s' India, however, Sujata has used the chapter title approach. The opening of The Widows of Malabar Hill has ‘1921 – 1 – A Stranger’s Gaze – Bombay, February 1921’. That seems to cover all the bases!


For the first book in Kwei Quartey’s Emma Djan series, The Missing American, he uses numbered Parts and chapters, with a sub-heading of the date and place: ‘Chapter One – 4th January, Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana’. His Inspector Darko Dawson novel, Murder at Cape Three Points, on the other hand, sticks with chapter numbering.


The Michael Stanleys’ African-set Detective Kubu novels have either numbered chapters or numbered Parts and chapters. But their standalone, Dead of Night uses numbered chapters with Part titles of the places they are set. So Part 1 is Duluth, Minnesota. Part 2 is South Africa, and so on.


For The Last Time She Died, I went with a prologue and then the usual numbering, although I did need sub-headings for dates on some chapters, when I hopped back and forth between what’s happening now, and ten years ago, when the story began.


But still, I’m tempted by those chapter titles. And when I looked up Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer I'm even more tempted. Any one of these would make you want to read that chapter, so I will list some of them without further comment:


1.         Good Morning! You’re Going to Die

2.         The Man with the Metal Bra

3.         Don’t Accept Rides from Strange Relatives

4.         Seriously, the Dude Cannot Drive

5.         I’ve Always Wanted to Destroy a Bridge

6.         Make Way for Ducklings, or They Will Smack You Upside the Head

7.         You Look Great Without a Nose, Really

8.         Mind the Gap, and Also the Hairy Guy with the Axe

9.         You Totally Want the Minibar Key

10.   My Room Does Not Suck

11.   Pleased to Meet You. I will Now Crush Your Windpipe

12.   At Least I’m Not on Goat-Chasing Duty


Not a lot more you can say to that, is there?


This week’s Word of the Week is litost, a Czech word meaning the humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their own accomplishments, of everything that has gone wrong with our lives and we become only too aware of the scale of our own inadequacies.


  1. I like the chapter headings where there is some hint of what is in the chapter - for me makes it more engaging and intriguing. Best wishes

    1. Thanks, K. I wonder if it gives the game away perhaps? And how cryptic does it have to be? Hmm, interesting, though!

  2. For our earlier books we used quotes from another (well-known) book or play for Part headings. For A Carrion Death, the story was actually summarized by Macbeth quotes that headed each part. We were very proud of that, but I don't think any of the readers actually noticed...

    1. I seem to recall that one Bouchercon named all the panels after song titles or something connected to songs. I was doing a self-defence demonstration that year, which is usually called You Can't Run in High Heels. Instead, we channelled Kirsty McColl and called it In These Shoes? I Doubt You'd Survive...

    2. I recently finished a Robert Galbraith's (J K Rowling's) Troubled Blood, in which she started each chapter with a quote from Spenser's The Fairie Queen. I read the first half-dozen, then got tired of them and skipped the rest. Not a favorite technique for this reader.

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  4. It's a great topic--I often debate whether to put a chapter heading as well as a number. The question I always ask myself is whether that will make the book BETTER. I still don't know the answer to that question. Is it the cake or the icing? Not everyone likes the icing. Some people think the icing spoils the cake.

    1. Personally, I like the icing -- just as long as there's no marzipan. Not sure what that's a metaphor for, though...

  5. Personally, I enjoy chapter titles, if they're enjoyable. :-) Most chapter titles leave me yawning. The best ones foreshadow the chapter without giving anything away. Another technique, which Tim Hallinan has used a lot, is to use a "snippet quote" from the chapter as the chapter title, which rarely tells you what's going to happen, but is intriguing and makes you want to read the chapter to find out what it is. Imagine a chapter titled, "A Forehead Like the Hoover Dam," or "Making Love to a Porcupine," etc.

    On a similar/related subject, I (as a reader) absolutely HATE it when an author refuses (or tries to be coy) starting out a chapter, where you have to read two or three paragraphs (or MORE) before you even know which character, place, or time is involved. That just pulls me RIGHT OUT of the story. Tell me in the first sentence who the viewpoint character is, and get me going. The first sentence of EVERY chapter should be like the first sentence of the entire book. Do NOT put up impediments to my continued reading. FWIW...

    On a third (and somewhat unrelated) point, I'm about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through "The Last Time She Died", and am loving it. Great job, Zoë. And, in this case, the short chapters are a bonus, as they keep the story moving right along in a rush, and you know the chapters are short, so you keep thinking, "I can read just ONE more..." Five chapters later, you finally put the book down because you have GOT to do some work.

    1. Thank you, EvKa! I'm delighted you're enjoying The Last Time She Died. I think because I've written most of my books (the Charlie Fox series) in first person, I like to stick to close-third person when I use that instead. If I want to jump into someone else's head, I start another chapter, so I could label the chapters by character POV? I love the idea of a snippet from the chapter, though. I'm a big fan of Tim Hallinan's work.

  6. My style reaches for one chapter flowing into the next in a way that makes anything more than a chapter number unnecessary. HOWEVER, if I wrote in a way where each chapter represented a different POV, a different locale, or continually shifting time frame, I can see where a reference to "John," "Pittsburgh," or "1932," would be helpful to the reader. That said, I generally find "cutesy" phrases as chapter headings distracting at best--causing "What does it mean," and when will it happen" thoughts to intrude on my trance of suspended disbelief--and off-putting at worst.