Using scene breaks properly

From Rick:

From time to time I receive questions about scenes and scene breaks.

We’ve all heard the term “scene” used, but we don’t often hear it defined. Here’s one concise definition I found online:

“A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you’ll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.” (Reference: PURPOSE OF A SCENE IN A NOVEL)

The article goes on to list the various purposes of a scene and gives a couple of tips on writing scenes, but it doesn’t go beyond that.

A much more extensive article is found in the link below, and you may want to spend some time digesting it.

WHAT IS A SCENE?

One point this article makes is that there is no single best definition of what a scene is. Neither are there any hard rules for what must be in a scene or where and when to break a scene.

Some writers will tell you that you should think of scenes like in a movie, where scenes can frequently switch, particularly in times of high action. While that idea works some of the time in a novel, we must always remember that NOVELS ARE NOT MOVIES. If you try to write your novel as if the reader is watching a movie, you’re going to find yourself in trouble because readers will find the short scenes and scene changes that work well in a movie distracting and difficult to follow in a novel.

This is why so many movies differ from their corresponding novels. You’re dealing with two different media. Too many long scenes in a movie will risk boring the viewer. At the same time, the novel writer needs to remember that it’s important to make sure the reader can visualize the scene. In some recent posts I’ve talked about being careful not to over describe nor spend too much time on descriptions because they slow the narrative and can bore the reader. In a novel, you do some of the descriptive work, then you let the reader’s imagination do the rest.

One of the issues that many writers must address is WHEN to use a scene break. The most obvious places are when the time or location changes. But even these become fuzzy when there’s a passage of time but the location doesn’t change. For example, if your character does something, then is waiting for something to happen (say waiting for a phone call or for someone to show up) and the character does something trivial while waiting (such as, reading a book, eating, watching TV, working on the computer, or going out to the store) that isn’t important to the story and that you don’t want to waste time portraying, then that doesn’t necessarily require a new scene. A transition sentence to show the passage of time might be all that’s needed to stay in the same scene. Even if the story picks up a week later, as long as the protagonist did nothing important or nothing else important happened in the story in the meantime, you can still continue the scene.

On the other hand, if you decide to break away from that character to do a scene with a different character somewhere else (maybe it involves the person who the first character is waiting on), then a scene break is warranted.

However, even if nothing else intervenes in the story during that time, it doesn’t mean you can’t use a scene break. It’s your choice. Some writers might decide to insert a chapter break, particularly if whatever the character is waiting for creates a point of high tension. But each story is different, and it’s up to the writer to make that call.

One good rule is that scenes (and especially chapters) should end on a high point, a point of tension, or a cliffhanger to make the reader want to continue reading.

Another good rule is to avoid too many short scenes in a row. Even if you’re at a point of intense action in the novel, short scenes and frequent scene breaks can be distracting and even confusing if you have the action taking place in multiple locations. Short scenes that move back and forth may work fine in movies, but not so well in novels.

This brings me to another place where scene breaks should be used: when the POV character changes. I’ve recently talked a lot about headhopping. If you’re writing a scene where you feel it’s necessary to switch the POV frequently, doing so with a scene break is generally NOT the way to solve it because then you’re creating what amounts to short scenes within a scene, and that’s even worse than headhopping (in my opinion). The best solution to headhopping and POV shifts in a scene is not to do those things. PERIOD.

The last point/rule I want to cover deals with how to show a scene break. You’ll find a scene break shown in one of two ways. The first is a physical break mark, which can be anything from one or more asterisks or pound signs or a short line to some custom mark or symbol on a separate line.

The second break designation is simply a blank line separating the scenes. However, this only works in PRINT books and when the scene break falls somewhere on the page other than at the top or bottom. A blank line separating scenes will be invisible in those cases. A publisher will not make the decision of using a blank line as a scene break until the book is in final form and it can be determined that the scene break will be visible.

I STRONGLY advise that you get into the habit of ALWAYS using a mark of some sort to denote a scene break. If you later want to remove some of them that fall in the middle of the page while formatting for final publication, that’s up to you. In e-books however, you can never be sure where on the page the scene break will fall because your readers could be using any number of devices with varying screen sizes.

Therefore, there is absolutely no advantage to using a blank line for a scene break. And there are several disadvantages, one being a sloppily formatted book, a second that you won’t have an easy way to find your scene breaks later if you need to, a third that you could accidentally add a blank line somewhere that isn’t a real scene break. You have enough to worry about with writing and editing your novel that you shouldn’t leave yourself open to further errors with unmarked scene breaks.

And if you think that you can add those break marks later, then I suggest that you’ll have a very good chance of missing some or of putting in breaks where they should not be.

–Rick

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