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Reality Check Chapter heading blindness

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
#1
You know those chapter headings you sometimes see in novels, the ones that are more than a number, a little hook lifted from the chapter itself, chapter 1: fishes at dawn, chapter 2: overstretched, chapter 27: more of the same, that kind of thing?

I've recently become aware that I don't read them, despite my best efforts, a selective blindness if you will, which seems a pity; I assume people go to great lengths to create them.

Do any of you do the same?
 
#6
I love long, Victorian-style chapter titles, like "In which the hero discovers that his African leopard-skin kirtle is nought but a faux-fur, gewgaw-endangled frippery manufactured in a Bow Street sweatshop; and Miss Featherstonehaugh has a crisis of nerves." They intrigue me strangely, and I always read them.
 
#7
Like Marc, I'm a fan of those long italicised Victorian chapter headings. Archaic and often unintentionally funny, lovely to parody.

Rich, your question raises a few things about reading itself. Like all of us, I skip bits I don't like if they seem irrelevant or pretentious. If I'm reading genre fiction, say thrillers or mysteries, I don't like prologues very much. I wouldn't pay much attention to chapter headings unless they were giving me important information. If they're just setting the mood, I'm not sure they serve any purpose.

Literary fiction is different and I read it differently. I'm more tolerant of quotations to open chapters and I'd expect headings to key me into some shift in register or theme. In the same way that when I read a poem, I might find that the poem title is actually the first line of the poem or reads on to open the actual line below. The use of language is heightened in literary fiction, more self-conscious and demanding. Here I'm not reading to find out what happens next, I'm paying attention to the journey, the 'how' of the prose as well as the 'what' of plotting.
 
#8
I use numbers and headings in my Cornish Detective series, which is a deliberate stylistic choice. It's meant to intrigue and tease the reader—fans of crime fiction are constantly looking for clues as they read. Having a heading also helps me to set the tone; I don't care if a reader remembers the title or skips it...we all skip-read in different ways.
Having chapters lets the reader monitor their progress—they serve as waymarkers. I've read genre and literary novels where the author used only section breaks, which made me feel rather stranded in a vast unorganised wasteland.
 

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
#9
A interesting set of replies! The irony is that I used chapter headings in my one completed novel, though they were of the thrilleresque place & time variety – included for orientation and pace.

I certainly agree that you can't beat a good bit of Victorian introing – in which Dicky unearths clew garnets of unprecedented size, and the major strikes murky soundings in Gibbsmere Water.

As for literary fiction, well, whatever you want – dem words is art now, innit?
 
#11
I forgot - repressed? - that I have a book in the drawer, waiting for me to decide what to do with it (Peter read the beginning a couple months ago on pop-ups) that is divided into days rather than chapters. The original title was Two Weeks in Geary. It was a finalist for the 2016 Claymore award, and I sent the beginning out to two agents, both of whom requested a full but eventually decided not to take it on. I suspect the format was part of the problem. Or maybe the middle sags. Or maybe the ending isn't satisfying. I don't know. Meanwhile, it sits in the drawer, composting.
 

Geoff

Ambassador
#13
I am in the read and then forget camp. I agree with Robinne that quotes at the start of chapters and books, are irritating. Particularly when they are in a different language to the rest of the book.
 
#15
Isn't it odd how sometimes a quotation or chapter heading can come across as irritating and pretentious and sometimes as a mini-'Aha!' moment? The same way that text in italics for emphasis sometimes feels just right and sometimes as an intrusion. Some of my favourite writers can get away with anything and other writers have the knack of producing invisible chapter heads that don't slow down my reading.

I don't always need what @Paul Whybrow called 'waymarkers' until I have to put the book down to answer the phone or make supper, but when I need to see a chapter head, it should be there and sometimes a smart heading helps me remember where I was in the novel when I come back.
 
#16
Have just started reading 'The Old Ways', by Robert Macfarlane -- his prose is deliciously sophisticated and poetic, btw -- and he starts each chapter with a staccato, hyphenated list of trigger words: for example, from Chap. 1 -: 'Foil -- Trods & holloways -- The blue & lucid ice -- Utsi's Stone -- [...] -- Biogeography -- The pylon's lyric crackle'
Who could resist reading on?
 
#17
Love Robert Macfarlane, I've read everything he's written and he makes words (and wild places described in words) so exciting I sit down and write down glossaries of new or archaic terms.

He posts a 'word of the day' on Twitter, @RobGMacfarlane
 

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
#18
Have just started reading 'The Old Ways', by Robert Macfarlane -- his prose is deliciously sophisticated and poetic, btw -- and he starts each chapter with a staccato, hyphenated list of trigger words: for example, from Chap. 1 -: 'Foil -- Trods & holloways -- The blue & lucid ice -- Utsi's Stone -- [...] -- Biogeography -- The pylon's lyric crackle'
Who could resist reading on?
I haven't read any Robert Macfarlane, so I'm hesitant to say it, but I think these headings would annoy me, yank me out of the story. But maybe not. I should probably read him before spouting off...:)

I'm really enjoying the variety of replies in this thread.
 
#20
Love Robert Macfarlane, I've read everything he's written and he makes words (and wild places described in words) so exciting I sit down and write down glossaries of new or archaic terms.

He posts a 'word of the day' on Twitter, @RobGMacfarlane
I hadn't read anything of his before -- delighted to find such a wordsmith!
 
#21
I haven't read any Robert Macfarlane, so I'm hesitant to say it, but I think these headings would annoy me, yank me out of the story. But maybe not. I should probably read him before spouting off...:)
.
The book in question isn't a piece of fiction, more a collection of travel anecdotes and philosophical musings, so it's not as though there is really a story to be yanked out of... Anyway, it works for me!
 

Rich.

Guardian
Staff member
#22
The book in question isn't a piece of fiction, more a collection of travel anecdotes and philosophical musings, so it's not as though there is really a story to be yanked out of... Anyway, it works for me!
I will have to check it out. I really did speak to soon, didn't I? Story of my... you know the rest. ;)
 

Amber

Benefactor
#23
I know someone who titled all of his chapters with songs from a particular group. I wouldn't say he went to great lengths to do it. I'm pretty sure he did it to amuse himself.

In one of my stories, I have quotes from Kahlil Gibran at the start of each chapter but it wasn't hard. I knew what I wanted to put there before I looked for the exact quote. I only do it to entertain myself.

Another reason I do it is because I sometimes get ideas from poems. One of my favorites of all time is Auguries of Innocence. Although, not the entire thing. I like all the contrasts ... and the ambivalence in the poem. I've never analyzed it or anything ... so I might be very wrong about what it's supposed to me ... I only know what it means to me.

This is my favorite part of it.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour​
 
#25
I know someone who titled all of his chapters with songs from a particular group. I wouldn't say he went to great lengths to do it. I'm pretty sure he did it to amuse himself.

In one of my stories, I have quotes from Kahlil Gibran at the start of each chapter but it wasn't hard. I knew what I wanted to put there before I looked for the exact quote. I only do it to entertain myself.

Another reason I do it is because I sometimes get ideas from poems. One of my favorites of all time is Auguries of Innocence. Although, not the entire thing. I like all the contrasts ... and the ambivalence in the poem. I've never analyzed it or anything ... so I might be very wrong about what it's supposed to me ... I only know what it means to me.

This is my favorite part of it.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour​
Blake is great. Agatha Christie used a Blakeism for her story, Endless Night.

Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night

At least I think that's Blake, but my memory could be playing tricks...
 
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