Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Section Breaks vs. Scene Breaks

by Jill Williamson

Have you ever been reading a book and noticed that sometimes a break in a scene is depicted by asterisks or some other fancy symbols, and sometimes there is only a wide space before a new scene begins? 


What’s the difference between the two, and how do you know which to use?


Scene Breaks
A scene break is when you hit enter (or return) three times, in a double-spaced document, leaving two blank lines between one section of text and the next section of text. A scene break is 
a separation between related scenes. It's used to indicate time passing or a change of location that continues in the same scene. In the following example, you can see how the scene break shows that time has passed.

Ex:


         “You believe in angels and demons?”
         “I guess.”
         “Ees real, Es-pensor.” And she turned back and opened her
book again.
         I wanted to say, “Don’t go!” but all I could do was settle
back in my seat and try to think of another question to ask.


Claustrophobia. I’d never understood the full meaning of that
word until now. Coach seats were not meant for guys over six
feet tall. At least I had the aisle to stretch my right leg...

Both examples I'm using today are from my new book The New Recruit. In the scene above, Spencer was on an airplane, talking to a girl that he thought was cute. The conversation ended, some time passed--indicated by the scene break--and when we returned, Spencer was still on the airplane.

Section Breaks
A section break is made by hitting enter to leave one blank line, centering three asterisks on the next line, hitting enter to leave another blank line, then hitting enter to type the next paragraph. A section break is used to indicate a complete scene break or a character point of view change. In the next example, you can see how the section break separates two different scenes.

Ex:
         “Try to hold tightly to your temper when you are playing
the sport of basketball à la gym . . . These things come to me.
In my dreams.”
         I didn't like the idea that Prière and I had things in common.
Not at all.

                                                           *    *    *

         At lunch the next day, everyone had already heard what had
happened with Nick. The Mission League kids had infiltrated
the basketball table . . . again. I really wasn't in the mood to
deal with them, Isabel excepted.     

In the above example, Spencer was talking with Prière, an intercessor, who was trying to give Spencer a warning. The scene ended completely, the asterisks showed the end of the scene, and a new scene began at lunch the next day.

New Chapters
Starting a new chapter can be another way of beginning a completely new scene--though some use chapter endings as cliffhangers, cutting the scene in the middle. This is really clever, and I highly recommend you do it when you can. But starting a new chapter at the end of a scene can be a good thing too, especially if your story has been moving along, super fast-paced, and you need to give your reader a breather.

To be honest, I don't actually use the guidelines above in my manuscripts. I've always used three asterisks for both scene breaks and section breaks, and my editors have changed them during the editing process.

And it doesn't matter whether you use three asterisks or four or whether you tab in between them or not. But don't add your own cool graphics. I know it's tempting, but adding pretties to your manuscript is a red flag for an editor or agent that screams, "We've got an amateur writer here!"

So, follow the definitions above and use proper scene and section breaks, or use asterisks for both, like I do. As long as you're consistent in what you do in this area, editors and agents won’t be bothered.

Just for fun, give me a great last line of a scene or chapter that would make your reader want to keep reading.

45 comments:

  1. I only use section breaks because my book takes place over about two weeks time and almost every minute of it is documented. I use section braks only when I'm switching heads.

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    1. Good, Anne-girl! Sounds perfect.
      And I love Anne, btw.

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  2. Now it's my turn to say, "perfect timing!" I've been trying to figure out when to use these lately...

    Okay, so here's a last line from my WIP: (actually, I have to include the last two so it makes sense)

    “Where's Grace?” I ask.
    “That's the other thing,” Luke says. “No one knows. We haven't seen her since last night.”

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  3. This helped me a lot actually. I usually put a line through my scene and section breaks - something much simpler than the design I used when I first started writing. But even then, it just didn't feel right. Thanks for letting us know about the asterisks!

    Here's a last line I dug up from one of the first chapters of my WIP:
    “You have to leave tonight,” Justinian said, “before the sun sets.”

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    1. I was using a line, too :) Now I know, though!

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    2. Nice chapter ending, Meaghan! :-)

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  4. Okay... here's an example from my WIP Chasing Shadows. And this article was so helpful Jill! Seriously... I'm still trying to figure formatting out.

    With fresh tears coming to her eyes, and silent sobs wracking her little body, she covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.

    The monsters were real.


    What do you think?

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  5. Great post, Jill! I've wondered about the whole "scene or section break" issue. Nice to have it cleared up. Hehe, when you mentioned not using your own "pretties" for section breaks, I flashed back to when I was younger and just started to writing. In the WIP I had been currently working own, I insisted that I needed to have a heart in the middle of every break. Didn't matter that it was always in a different spot, and looked awful. Glad to know that I've grown at least little... :)

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    1. Aww... being professional is no fun, huh?
      I'm glad this was helpful, Clare. :-)

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  6. Here's an example from my WIP, "The Followers". White-hot pain exploded through him.
    His only thought as he fell was, I hope Gareth understands why I did this for him.

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    1. Nice, Marisa! Yours is scary too, especially since I don't know what's going on or where he's falling from.

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  7. Thank you so much for all this amazing info! I for one, found it all extremely helpful. Here is an exert from my WIP I am currently working on. Sorry it is not a single line. It is the ending scene to a chapter and unlike some of the amazing writers whose lines I have read so far, I am not gifted with the ability to grab hold of a reader with a single line. *Yet.* So yeah...without further ado, my exert:
    I had meant to end the story to calmly reassure the -what I hoped to be- terrified girl that the “little girl's spirit” was nice to all unless she was hungry. Only then would she attack but never when there was more than one person in the woods. My hopes were that this would finally be what would convince her to join us girls in the hut. Never could I foretell how she would actually respond. If I could, I would have never taken her out to the woods in the first place.

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    1. This was great!!!! Also loved learning that there are others who still haven't *quite* mastered the art of those immortal first or last lines. ;)

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    2. Thank you Meghan so much! And lol! <3

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    3. Good job, Leorah! (Pretty name, btw.)
      Your story sounds creepy fun too. :-)

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  8. Aha! Excellent post! :D I've always wondered about this, and now I know! :) an excerpt from my WIP (I assume that stands for "work in progress"?);

    Allistar's legs gave out on him, and he collapsed to the ground. He was too shocked to scream, too scared to run. He lay and waited to die.

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    1. Yeah, it means work in progress.

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    2. Good, Dakota! I hope someone comes for him. *turns page to find out*

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  9. Thanks so much for clearing that up!

    I'm not so good with ending my chapters with super lines; but I write killers opening lines. I'll share one of those. Dashing through the streets, Ben slipped on a pile of dung and went sprawling.

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    1. LOL! Nice, Tiffanie. And, ouch! for poor Ben. :-)

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    2. Me too. All right, here's mine: "I sharpened my pencil and prepared for death once again."
      See, this is a story about a teenager who writes obituaries. Just don't ask . . .

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    3. WOW. I would have been so lost if you didn't explain that one. LOL
      As an opening line, that is SOO awesome :)

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  10. I err more on the side of section breaks rather than scene breaks. If I'm completely honest I think of them as sort of the same. LOL As I switch POV's with every *chapter*, the scenes are broken by asterisks, for mine...here's a last line from my WIP's Prologue:
    Only rarely now did she ever inquire of the Almighty, "Why?", but now, she found herself wondering the same yet again before retreating into the quiet place in her mind wherein dwelt the memories of the longest four years of her life—the war of the rebellion.

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    1. I loved this! It really pulled me in!

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    2. Interesting, Meghan! You guys are so talented!

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    3. Love the rhythm to this line, Meg!

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  11. Thank you so much for this! As usual, Go Teen Writers has articles right when I need them - I was just wondering about the difference between the two types of breaks!
    Hmm, an excerpt from mine...okay, sorry if this makes less sense out of context, but here's my best 'cliffhanger ending':

    Then someone else came running into the room, panting.
    “Captain,” the man wheezed. “The airlock – it’s in use. Someone’s coming in...”


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    1. *shivers*
      Nice one, Kate! You guys have got this chapter ending thing down!

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  12. Question... what break do you use if your MC gets knocked unconscious, and in the next paragraph, he's waking up?
    Here's a line from me:
    'My only other option is to kill her, and she also knows I will not do that. Infuriating as she is, I still must maintain some sense of loyalty, though she has none. I have to go through with it.'

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    1. Could be either. Depends on how much time has passed, I'd say. Or maybe consider where he wakes up. If he wakes in the same place, do the scene break. But if he wakes in a new location, I'd do a section break.

      Gah! You guys! If only I had time to read all your stories! Someday I will have a shelf of GTW books. Good job, Lydia! I'm totally intrigued by that.

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    2. I guess that would make it a section break, then, Thank you.
      I think we should throw an online party every time a Go Teen Writer gets published. That way, we *all* can be informed and get started on our GTW shelves. So encouraged by your reaction. Thank you so darn much!
      Ooh, I'm feeling super question-y today... Is it a problem in a manuscript, when you have a very intelligent, introspective MC, and your book's in first person, so thus it's chock full of showing/thinking/emotion/memories, but is not *as* filled with dialogue? I mean, there's a good amount, but he just is in his own little world a bunch.

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  13. Wow this was really helpful! I'd just been doing blank spaces between all of my breaks, but this makes much more sense!

    I'm not usually good with ending chapters. I haven't really picked up that skill yet. But here's an ending chapter bit in my WIP:

    Finley gestured to the TV, just as the reporter stopped mid-speech by a policeman whispering something to her. She cleared her throat. “We have a...an unfortunate update. Finley Lancaster’s body has been uncovered in the wreckage.”

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    1. Good job, H! That's a great cliffhanger ending. I'd turn the page for sure!

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  14. I like writing short chapters, so the scene breaks usually end with the chapter. And I'm a HUGE fan of cliff-hangers at the end of each chapters. Not overboard. But a fan. ;)

    A chapter ending:
    “Welcome to a slave’s life, Micah.” The flap swings closed behind Barak. “You’re going to get hurt.”
    A bit funny out of context of course, but I had fun. :]

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  15. Jill, I haven't read any of your books yet, but each time I read one of your posts, I move "Buy a Jill Williamson book" up higher on my to-do list! So the next time I have a chance to feed my book habit....Anyway, here's the last part of a chapter from my current work in progress:

    The suspense is thicker than my slice of pie. “What is it, Dad?”
    He makes lengthy eye contact first with my mom and then with me. “It’s Brant. He’s been taken to the hospital.”

    Still in the 1st draft stage, but I'm still trying to master the whole cliff-hanger thing :)

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    1. Jill, yet another very helpful post. As I work on my new WIP (which doesn't have something to add as of today), I wonder, where all the little 'pretties' do come from? The publishers? The editors? If not from the writers?

      It is so tempting ...

      My new WIP will eventually have the possibility of 80 characters - over time. Now I am working on establishing the primaries, secondaries, etc. Who knows how they will decide to change after the stories develop.

      Thanks again for all your great wisdom!

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  16. Ah, so that's why. :) Thanks, Jill!

    My line (opened up my ms and chose at random): Lord, did You fashion her after an angel or a lioness? I am having the hardest time deciding.

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  17. DUDE. I always see this in books, and this is something that's been bothering me for AGES, because I just didn't get it. Thank you so much for this post! :)

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  18. I love that you use them every time. I can't really tell whether mine should be a section or scene break, so I've been doing all scene breaks. Thank you as well for the hint about the doodads, I like to use tildas in mine (~ * ~ ~ * ~ ~ * ~) but I don't want to appear unprofessional, so I'll definitely stop. Thanks for the advice!

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  19. Thank you for this! Very informative. :) A (hopefully appropriately cliffhanger-y) excerpt from my current project:
    She put her hand against a tree trunk and jumped in terror when the ivy started to wrap around her hand. She pulled it away fearfully and stood as far away from every tree around her as she could. Where was she? Why was the forest attacking her? And, most importantly, who was she?

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  20. This was so helpful. My chapters for my novel were super short prior to reading this, because I had no idea how to transition between scene breaks-- every scene break then became a new chapter! Here's a suspenseful chapter-break line from my WIP--
    "Up ahead, I could see the familiar side alleyway dividing my apartment building from the one beside it; a cramped space probably used to store garbage bins. The streetlamp nearby was off. There was nothing strange about that-- a lot of streetlamps around that part of town were broken or faulty. I didn’t think anything of it.
    The light buzzed as I walked by, and the bulb flickered weakly-- once, twice, again--
    It turned on.
    I blinked, my eyes adjusting to the light--
    And I stifled a scream."
    Have to work on getting away from those dashes, but I'm stuck on how else to convey the level of urgency I'm looking for. Oh well.

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