As some authors choose to dispense with chapters altogether, for them I guess the answer is not very! Other authors merely go for numbering chapters and leave it at that. And with the advent of the e-book, perhaps they are less relevant now as you can’t easily flip back to previous chapters or the list of contents as you would with a traditional paperback.
And yet. Chapter headings can be an art form and add to the beauty of the book. They can help develop a theme and draw the reader through the novel; they can inform, they can summarise, and they can be a platform for showing off ingenuity and creative flair.
A book I read recently used song titles for each of the chapters, but I didn’t immediately spot this; once I had done I was intrigued to discover which song titles had been chosen and what might lie behind the choice. Some were very well known songs, and very fitting for the poignancy of that chapter or the plot development; others were more unusual, obscure even. I found myself wondering about the musical preferences of the author.
I have been working on a new novel with a first-time author through UK book publishing and once we had done a full edit of the book we turned our minds to the chapter headings. I felt that some headings didn’t work because they gave too much away in a very plot-driven book, particularly towards the end. Some ambiguity helps to maintain the intrigue I think, and keep the readers guessing.
As we worked on the book it became clear that food and drink (and wine in particular) featured heavily throughout the book. Many decisions were taken or important discussions were had over a meal or a shared bottle of wine. The plot tracked between different countries, and the iconic food or drink of the different locations also got mentions.
So, we decided to build the food and drink references into many of the chapter headings (eg Picnic on the beach, Several bottles of Shiraz, the cappuccino culture) – but the author drew the line at including food references in the book title. In the end, we wanted to achieve a balance and didn’t want it sounding like a cookery book.