Scene (aka section) and chapter breaks are important structural tools, indicating to the reader that something in the setting has changed. They can also indicate flashbacks and signal changes in time, location, and point of view. Using scene and chapter breaks is a good way for authors to control the flow of their stories. Chapter breaks are usually indicated by starting a new page and assigning a chapter number. Scene breaks can be indicated by an extra line between paragraphs, asterisks, or some other symbol.
Use scene and/or chapter breaks to
Indicate a change in the narrative.
Scene and chapter breaks indicate the passage of time, a location change, or introduce a shift in the point of view character. They can also introduce new characters or plot points. For example, you might use a chapter break to indicate a change in point of view or narrative style.
In Braelynn’s Birthright—Book 2: Fallen Angel, the author uses chapter breaks to indicate a change in point of view and narrative style.
Fallen Angel is mainly written in first person limited point of view using Braelynn as the point of view character. However, some chapters show the reader what is happening in the world of Samael, the antagonist, before they meet. These chapters are written in third person omniscient point of view.
On the left is the last page of one of Samael’s chapters.
On the right is the first page of chapter 2. Note the difference in point of view and narrative style. As the two differ significantly in tone and voice, so a chapter break is a good way to let the readers know to expect something completely different moving forward.
The image below illustrates the use of section breaks, taken from Braelynn’s Birthright—Book 1: Wendigo:
There are three section breaks, as follows:
Scene 1: the beginning of the chapter. It begins after one event has concluded (the girls go up against the leader of a gang of greaser vampires and survive). Because the girls must attend class or get into trouble for skipping, they cannot debrief.
Scene 2: time has passed. The girls are now in the middle of class. The author inserts a section break and skips all the irrelevant stuff that has happened since the last section, helping the story to move quickly forward. The girls hatch a plan to fake a bathroom break and meet in the stairwell.
Scene 3: the setting changes. The girls are now in the stairwell instead of the classroom. There is no need to show Braelynn getting up from her desk and walking down the hall to the stairwell, so the author uses a section break to show the change in setting.
Keep the reader engaged.
Chapter breaks allow the reader to pause to reflect on what they’ve read before continuing with the story. This can also keep the reader engaged and invested in the story. Each chapter should have a specific goal, begin with a sense of urgency, and end with a cliffhanger.
Control the pace of the narrative.
Shorter sections and chapters create a fast-paced, action-packed story (thus adding to the tension), while longer sections and chapters can be used to create a slower, more contemplative story. The length of the chapters is debatable. Some sources say that you should “make your chapters fit your story” and not make your “story fit your chapters.” Others say that 1,500 to 5,000 words is the norm. Keep in mind that chapters present a natural resting place for your reader to pause and contemplate your story, and longer chapters risk losing readers. Overall, “chapter length varies by genre, author, and subject matter.”
Transition the reader.
Scene and chapter breaks also signal a change in tone or point of view. For example, the shift from one point of view character to another can be indicated by a section or chapter break, allowing the reader to follow the different perspectives of the story easily.
You can also assign different section breaks for different purposes. In a single chapter, for example, you can use “soft” section breaks to show a change in setting or the passage of time. Indicate this with an extra blank line between sections. “Hard” section breaks might show a change in point of view. For example, showing the same events from two different characters’ points of view. Indicate this with asterisks or some other symbol between sections.
Skip over unnecessary plot events.
Each break should indicate another step toward a goal achieved on the character’s journey. You can also use them to jump over unnecessary or mundane moments to get your readers from point A to point B. This helps to move the story forward and keep the pace of the narrative interesting.
Scene breaks are transitions between scenes. Use a scene break to get the characters from one plot point to another. Your book does not unfold in real time. You can speed up or slow down the narrative with your sentence, paragraph, and scene structure. Scene breaks help speed up the narrative by telling your story and skipping the boring stuff that would otherwise transition your characters from one plot point to the next.
Experiment with different types of breaks, such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and cliffhangers, to add variety and interest to your story. By using chapter and scene breaks effectively, you can tighten up the structure of your story, making it easier for readers to follow the action of your carefully constructed plot.
The next time you write, think about how you can add scene and/or chapter breaks to your writing to help structure and control your narrative.