Beginning authors have lots of questions. And why wouldn’t they, when so much about book publishing involves unspoken rules? Maybe you’re wondering about some of those rules, like, should your novel have a table of contents? And if so, what should it look like?
Agents and editors have somewhat different expectations for submissions of various types. If you’re submitting a nonfiction book proposal, for example, you better have included a Table of Contents (better yet, an annotated TOC or a set of chapter summaries). When it comes to fiction manuscripts, however, a Table of Contents is unnecessary.
Note that I said it isn’t necessary—not that it’s wrong, or breaking the rules, to include a Table of Contents if you wish.
How do you decide? Well, for one thing, I recommend including a Table of Contents in your novel (or memoir, for that matter) if you’re using anything more creative than “Chapter 12” type headings. If your chapters have descriptive names, including the TOC in your manuscript can help agents and editors get a sense of what’s in your novel at a glance. It’s important that your chapter titles match the tone of the book, however. Don’t make the mistake of using gimmicky or cute chapter titles in a serious literary work or a dark and stormy thriller. It’s just confusing and weird. In most cases, it’ll hurt your first impression.
Also, if you’re going to use unique chapter titles and then include them in a Table of Contents, be sure you only send that TOC page to agents when they ask for your complete manuscript. If you’re asked to send in the first 50 pages and a synopsis, the TOC won’t add anything particularly important, and you’re just wasting a page slot that could be taken up by another page of your story. They’ll still see the fun chapter titles you used for those included in your sample excerpt; that’s enough to give a taste, which is exactly what they’re looking for in a sample chapters or a partial manuscript.
All of that said, most published novels and memoirs don’t have a Table of Contents. Most just number their chapters and leave it at that. It’s a time-tested approach you can feel comfortable using, so don’t feel you need to work extra hard to come up with anything fancier.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.