Friday, April 26, 2013

Quotes as Chapter Headings

You may have come across this before: the chapter starts with a quotation from a historical person, a song, or even an encyclopedia. The first time I remember coming across this technique was in the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, where the main sections began with a snippet from the Encyclopædia Galactica on either the character or event in the time period of the chapters.

This was new to me. I was familiar with simple chapter headings (Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.) or occasionally a book would have a chapter title. I used that technique in my own books. The Crystal Throne had descriptive chapter titles (Chapter Two: Decision). In Talking To Trees, because I switched the point of view of the story back and forth between the chapters, each chapter had the name of the character whose POV it was for that section. I have a few friends who have names of songs as the chapter titles.

But when I first encountered the Foundation trilogy, I was fascinated. Those quotations made the world of that series believable because it had an encyclopedia! A Galactic encyclopedia! Okay, I was young, but still, those chapter headings caught my attention as a reader.

Quotations at the very beginning of the chapter are used in many different ways and for many different reasons.

Robert Asprin (and Jody Lynne Nye following his lead) in the MYTH series used funny fake quotations (mythquotes?) from historical and modern day people which were somewhat related to the events of the chapter. The MYTH series is humorous fantasy and the quotes just add to the humor. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller in the Liaden series quote historical characters from their series as well as snippets from their universe’s code of honor or ship rules. The quotations add to that universe and are a useful bit of world building.

Vivian Vande Velde in her new children’s book, Frogged, used as her chapter headings the chapter headings from a book her princess was supposed to be reading (The Art of Being A Princess) followed by her character’s often sarcastic response. That definitely gave you a window into Princess Imogene’s thoughts.

The excerpts don’t always have to be at the beginning of a chapter. David Lubar in Hidden Talents has in between each chapter something that reveals a different side to the characters - a snippet from a telephone conversation, a copy of a teacher’s list of things to remember, part of an interview with a student, or a discarded essay found in a trashcan. Sarah Prineas went a step further in her Magic Thief series: Each chapter was followed by a letter from her main wizard, ending with several sentences in runes. At the end of the book was a runic alphabet that the reader could use to go back to the letters and translate.

This technique with chapter headings has appeared across genres. I’ve seen it used in science fiction, fantasy and YA. It doesn’t seem to be a fad as such, because I’ve seen it used in books off and on since the sixties. There are those who use it in that way - just for the sake of doing so - and one can spot when that happens as the quotations don’t make any sense either in the chapter or the overall book.

This form of chapter heading can add to the reader’s enjoyment. It can help contribute to your world building without seeming like an infodump. It’s a chance for a bit of humor, a character’s voice, a snippet from the past, or the insertion of an otherwise dry factoid.

What books have you read with quotations as chapter headings? What do you think of them?


  1. I agree, Quotes as chapter headings or augmenting chapter headings can be both informative, add interest, or forecast a thought or description important to the reader.

    In Lorna and my first book, 31 Months in Japan the building of a Theme Park, the text contained foreign words, and jargon unique to the entertainment industry. By adding a quote or definition at the beginning of each chapter, the reader became familiar with the terms. And placing it at the beginning of the chapter meant the flow within the story was not interrupted.

    In our mysteries, the chapter titles often forecast a character, event, or a bit of information that could be important to know. We want the reader to be able to solve the case (but along with and not before our detective).

    Like you, I first saw the technique in Asimov’s Foundation series. I read the first five books, just didn’t get into the prequels.

    Thanks you for a very informative and interesting blog.

    Larry Collins

  2. I like chapter headings. They give a hint as to what you might read in the chapter. Can't think of a particular book off hand. In my forthcoming MG story, I use headings. They just seemed right.

  3. I used classic rock song quotes in my book Milky Way Marmalade. But publisher removed them in later version. Possibly rights issue.