The Trouble with Chapter Subtitles

All is going well on the writing front, and I’ll be adding a new status post towards the tail end of next week. However, as I’ve also started another editing pass on The Many Travails of John Smith, I wanted to take a moment today to write about a literary device I regret employing with that series.

If you read the header for this blog entry, you already know what that device is. If not, I’ll spoil it for you right now: chapter subtitles.

Now, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with chapter subtitles. They can be a fun way to give the reader a hint as to what’s coming, to deliver a bit of style that might not fit into the body of the chapter, or to even do some extra world building on the side. I’ve seen them employed really well in a number of series, which is likely why, when I sat down to write my first book, I thought to myself ‘Hey… let’s do that!’

So I did:

Here’s why I wish I hadn’t:

Chapter length varies from book to book and author to author. In Investigation, Mediation, Vindication, my chapters weren’t particularly normalized in length, but I’d say they averaged between 8 and 12 pages in length. If we’re talking about a three-hundred-and-fifty page book, that makes for somewhere between twenty-nine and forty-three chapter subtitles to write.

That’s actually not all that bad. I mean, twenty-nine somewhat pithy or fun or even vaguely entertaining chapter subtitles–because if they’re not at least one of the three, why bother?–isn’t too daunting compared to the actual task of writing a full book, right?

The problem with books is that they tend to breed sequels; before you know it, your first book has spawned half a dozen follow-ups, you need a new hard drive just to hold all the research, and you can sense pedestrians eyeing you on the street, wondering whether you’ll actually live long enough to finish whatever monstrosity of a series you’ve decided to write.

So one book becomes a trilogy, a quintet, an octet, and then, eventually, The Wheel of Time. If you’ve managed to keep readers invested in the series for all that time, they’re going to expect a certain consistency; in characterization, in writing style… even in organizational mechanics.

Like chapter subtitles, for instance.

The Many Travails of John Smith currently has four books in varying stages of completion, for a total of roughly 1800 pages. Using our math from before, that would make for somewhere between 150 to 225 subtitles. In reality, that number is a little smaller (145), but the point stands; those cute, fun little subtitles that I decided to add in on a whim have now become their own herculean task.

I have a spreadsheet just to track the subtitles I’ve already used, in an (obviously futile) attempt to keep from repeating myself. There are plans for another three books in the series, (leaving me just shy of the aforementioned octet, which would clearly be excessive), and the thing I dread the most is coming up with another one hundred or so subtitles.

So when you sit down to write your book–and you should, because the world could use more books and more readers–and think to yourself, ‘You know what would be cool? Chapter subtitles!’, please spare a thought for how you’ll feel about having to create new subtitles two or three or fifteen books down the line in the series. If that thought doesn’t daunt you, then have at it!

If you’re like me, however, you might do what I’m doing for The Murder of Crows, and opt to skip the subtitles entirely.

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