Gimme A Break!

Writers use a few conventions to let the reader know a change is coming in a story. The big break—the chapter break—is the most well-known, and involves a new page, and a title or number at the start of the page.

Less straightforward are the breaks that the writer places within the chapter to indicate changes to some element of the story. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to use phrases that are generally accepted: the “section break” and the “scene break”.

Placing a space between two paragraphs creates a section break. The section break tells the reader something is going to change in the paragraph following the break, and it also tells the reader whatever is coming isn’t going to be a substantial change. For example:

I walked down the road. It was dusty, and hot, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, after having been away for so long.


The abandoned restaurant came into view around the corner about half an hour later.

In the above case, the writer has no need to describe half an hour’s worth of walking in the dust and heat, wants to skip ahead in time, and uses the paragraph space to indicate the jump forward. Section breaks are typically used only for a jump ahead in time or location for the same character(s). The paragraph space tells the reader, “we’re skipping ahead a bit.”

For more substantive changes in the chapter, the scene break is used. The scene break is visually more substantive, typically consisting of two paragraph spaces separated by a mark such as three asterisks (* * *), a tilde (~), or other mark. A scene break typically involves a change of location and time, and is also used to indicate a change in point of view (POV). Here’s an example of a scene break:

The last rays of the sun reflected in the windows of the old house. The windowpanes glowed a blood-red. Inside, the screaming began.


* * *


At six a.m. I picked up the keys to the Mustang and headed out the door. The drive would take about three hours. The distance didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fear of what I’d find when I arrived.

In this case, the writer indicates that a large change is coming with the three asterisks that come after one paragraph. In the next paragraph, the writer has changed POV (and, presumably, location and time as well).

Find out more about effective transitions in part two: Lost in Space

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