Monday, November 23, 2009


Hi Allyson,

I love a book with chapter titles. Perhaps this dates from my passion for Charlotte’s Web, when as a child I read “Escape,” or “Loneliness,” or “An Explosion,” and I anticipated what would happen in that chapter. I enjoy being given a hint and looking forward to what is about to be revealed. So I appreciate it when an author makes the effort to write great chapter titles, especially because it’s tough to write chapter titles that give readers a clue without giving away the punch line of the chapter.

I started thinking about chapter titles after your latest post about 2nd person POV, because of Stead’s use of “you” in many of the chapter titles in When You Reach Me--15 out of the 53 chapter titles include “You.” I was curious about who “you” in these chapter titles referred to—was it the same “you” as the book’s title “You”? (More about the title in a future post.) And if not, who did the pronoun “you” refer to?

What I discovered is that in the chapter titles, the referent for the pronoun “you” varies. Sometimes it’s Miranda, as in “Things You Keep in a Box” (p. 1) and “Things You Count” (p. 73). Sometimes it’s Miranda and another character, as in “Things You Hide,” (p. 7) in which Miranda and her mother hide the key to their apartment, or in “Things You Wish For” (p. 27) when the wishes of Richard, Miranda’s mom, and Miranda are all clarified. Sometimes “you” is another character altogether, as in “Things You Hold On To” (p. 81), which refers to the $2 bills that Jimmy collects. And sometimes the referent of “You” is more general, as in “Things You Push Away” (p. 71), referring to “some people.” Stead’s use of varied referents for “You” in the chapter titles wasn’t distracting to me, however, because she always made the referent, and the context, clear

Focusing on these chapter titles got me interested in other aspects of Stead’s chapter titles. She accomplishes a lot in her chapter titles.

First, the chapter titles are a hook, baiting me to read on and find out what they refer to. Second, many of the chapter titles (41) focus on “Things,” and those emphasize an important element of the story--the “Winner’s Circle” of the “$20,000 Pyramid” game. These chapter titles were fun--I got to guess, like the contestants would have, what might be some of the specific “things”-- “Salty Things” (p. 84), for example. Or “Things You Pretend” (p. 88). Third, some chapter titles, like “Christmas Vacation” (p. 132), “The First Note (p. 60), and “The Second Proof” (p. 134) alerted me to the passage of time. It’s useful to be told, in effect, “Here’s when the first note appears,” or “Now the second proof’s coming up.” Fourth, some of the chapter titles foreshadow or reinforce important themes; for example, “Magic Thread” (p. 187), in which the “veil” is snatched away; “Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal” (p. 196), about the continuation of their friendship; and “Parting Gifts” (p. 197), which includes the resolution of the mystery. And some chapter titles accomplish several of these purposes simultaneously; for example, “Things That Kick” (p. 16) relates to the $20,000 Pyramid game, and it also invites me to guess “things that kick,” and in addition it foreshadows that someone’s kicks will be important to the story.

Storysleuths’ Tip #27: Use chapter titles to hook readers to continue reading, to emphasize an important element of the story, to focus on the passage of time, and to foreshadow or reinforce important themes. Sometimes chapter titles can accomplish several of these objectives at once, but never give away the punch line of a chapter in the chapter title.

Over to you, Allyson.

NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me Post.