Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Chapter Headings

220px-Name_of_rose_movieposterI’ve always been antsy about chapter titles. They always seem to have a touch of spoiler to them, such as “Chapter 19, in which Sophie expresses herself with weed-killer” from Howl’s Moving Castle. Thanks a lot, Diana Wynne Jones, now I won’t be surprised when the protagonist gets emotional as she gardens. (I am a very cranky reader before dawn, which is rather inconvenient for one whose reading time MUST take place before children wake.) So when I notice that Eco has them in this massive tome of his, I am skeptical.

The Name of the Rose is divided by days, and then by the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins, etc.). This fits: it gives readers a consistent sense of time and place, since the narrator Adso doesn’t always bother. Eco took great care for the breaks between hours to come with high tension, or tension releases.

Do the chapter headings help or hurt this tension? Let’s see. First one:

First Day, Prime: in which the foot of the abbey is reached, and William demonstrates his great acumen.

So they’ve reached their destination, and we get to see James Bond the Monk be smart. Well that’s a given. Nothing spoiled here.

I do like how Eco sometimes uses those headings to hook me for one more chapter:

First Day, Vespers: in which the rest of the abbey is visited, William comes to some conclusions about Adelmo’s death, there is a conversation with the brother glazier about glasses for reading and about phantoms for those who seek to read too much.

What are his conclusions? Who are the phantoms? See, I had to read a little further.

Yet these headings also forewarn me the characters are about to wander from the plot. While forewarnings are always appreciated, they do make me wonder why wanderings must eat up entire chapters, like this one:

Third Day, Terce: in which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books.

Perhaps Eco has these chapters to screw with the reader. After I muck my way through a chapter of inner pondering, I read another heading, and think Great, he’s going to do it AGAIN.

Third Day, Nones: in which William speaks to Adso of the great river of heresy, of the function of the simple within the church, of his doubts concerning the possibility of knowing universal laws; and almost parenthetically he tells how he deciphered the necromantic signs left by Venantius.

Hang on—what was that on the end? We’re back to the mystery? (grumbles) All right, Eco, I’m on for one more bloody chapter of yours…

And sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if Eco puts the tension release into the headings as if to promise himself he gets to have that moment of release.

Third Day, Vespers: in which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.

I don’t blame him, not when there are other chapters like this:

Fifth Day, Nones: in which justice is meted out, and there is the embarrassing impression that everyone is wrong.

Overall, I must admit the chapter headings are quite useful. They are, in an odd way, a roadmap through the story—no. More like a treasure map, where one clue leads you to another, and while you can see the connections between the past clues, you can’t at all see where this new clue is taking you. Would I use chapter headings in this fashion? I honestly don’t know. I have a feeling I’d be too paranoid about giving something away, or trying too hard at wit and failing. Perhaps such chapter headings will fit your story, and provide readers with the reason to read just one more chapter. And another. And another.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

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9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Chapter Headings

  1. And another. And another. Another of your blogs too. Actually the headings do egg the reader on. they are as good as a cliff hanger ending to a chapter. I used to love these old children’s books that had headings. I felt the author had really thought about everything and covered the bases. SO much better than Chapter 1. Chapter 2

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have mixed feelings about the chapter headings. As long as nothing is spoiled, I say to the author, “Go right ahead”” But if the headings do give too much away, then I’d rather have the much more boring heading of “Chapter One”.

    I must admit that Eco’s archaic writing style is charming and intriguing….

    Actually it turns out that I’m a big hypocrite. Many of my book’s chapter titles strongly hint or give away what’s to come, but not in Umberto Eco’s style! 😉 I stick to either one word, a few words, or a sentence. But I committed the “Giveaway Sin”. I am attached to my titles so I’m not sure what to do! :0

    p.s. Great , unique post!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dyane! Yes, I’m still torn about them. In my meager library there seems to be a balance between chapter headings and straight-up numbers…I like when the chapter headings relay something important in context (in this case, the time), but if ALL the chapter headings were “wink wink, look humor!” moments like the cheese in batter, I think they’d grow tiresome pretty fast. I suppose I’m iffy about them because I’m also trying to get the hang of writing in general–chapter headings make me think, “Great, one MORE thing I have to figure out.” 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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