Prepublishing, Tips & Tricks

Chapter Breaks & Scene Breaks

Knowing when to take a break is an important aspect in writing.

Short stories do not have chapters, but they have scene breaks. Novellettes to novels have chapters and can have scene breaks.

But what are these?

As readers, we understand chapters. They act like stop signs, allowing us to breathe. As writers it’s obvious that there is more to the breaks than just because.

So what are they for? These three aspects are common in both types of breaks.

  • Change in location
  • Change in time
  • Change in POV

There is a special circumstance with breaks that aren’t as common or maybe they aren’t always executed well. You can use a break to build emotional tension. I won’t be covering how to do that in this one, but K.M. Weiland’s book Structuring your Novel (mybook.to/KMWStructuring) is a great starting point in learning how.

Chapters

On top of the three options above, chapter lengths can affect a story’s pacing. A short chapter speeds up pacing, and long chapters slow it down.

They act like commercial breaks, giving readers a mental and emotional break and a clear stopping point. This allows readers to digest what they just read.

Scene breaks

There are two types of scene breaks—hard and soft. There is no noticeable census on when to use them. See image of the visual difference. Text provided by Lorem Ipsum text generator (https://www.lipsum.com/)

Hard breaks are denotes with #, ***, or pretty little pictures/lines. A soft scene break has a space between paragraphs. Regardless of the break, according to Chicago Manual of Styles, the paragraph that comes after a break must be flushed and not indented. This is done because no matter where the break falls—top of the page, bottom of the page, or middle of the page—it is clearly a break in the action. (This also applies to the first paragraph of a chapter. I’ll wait while you go pull a traditional book off your shelf.)

According to K.M. Weiland, a scene is made up of 6 specific moments. You can read more in depth in her book Structuring your Novel (mybook.to/KMWStructuring).

Scene breaks complete specific goals more than just denoting a change in location/time or POV. They are made up of plot points and character interactions.

For me, they act like road bumps. No one wants to really read about the MC walking to their car, getting in the car, driving to the pizza place, picking up the pizza and coming back especially if nothing significant happens during that entire drive. We can omit that redundant movement with a scene break while not giving up the chapter.

Closing

Just like paragraphs make reading a page of text easier, chapter and scene breaks serve a very distinct purpose that as novice we don’t understand but as readers we understand it. They turn reading and remembering into manageable chunks. They signal “this is an intermission break.”

Imagine if a play or a movie stopped in midaction, midconversation and an intermission happened. Now the reader/watcher has to remember the specifics to get back into the story.

Few of us have photographic memory, an as such, we’d have to reread a few paragraphs/pages to remember exactly where we left off. It takes more energy and drive to do that repeatedly with a book. The more energy invested in something like this, the greater the chance a reader will have a negative view of the book.

Have you ever heard someone say “man that book dragged?” It could be a pacing issue, and using chapter and scene breaks effectively could have changed that single perception of “it dragged” to “it as good.”

Good writers use breaks to their advantage. When you reach the self-editing stage, ask yourself if there are any places that a break could help with your story flow.

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