In this part we will conclude our look at scene breaks in fiction writing, and why we need them.
Following on from Part 1, where we looked at point 1 – a change of scene from one location to the other, and point 2 – to show a change of character viewpoint, we’ll continue with the reasons why and how we use them:-
3. To notify the reader that time has progressed from the last scene
Scene breaks are a very easy way to show how time has moved on from one point to the next. It’s possible to skip hours, days or even weeks with a scene break; as long as the writer draws attention to the fact that time will pass by before the next scene, otherwise a jump in time without hinting at it or preparing the reader might confuse the them. For example:
He peered across the River Thames, thought about Eve. Even though she had fled the country, Peter knew he needed to see her, and he wasn’t prepared to wait any longer. He knew he had to go and find her.
(SCENE BREAK HERE)
Six hours later, Peter arrived in the Gothic town of Prague…etc.
From the example, it’s obvious that Peter will go after the girl, and it involves travelling, so the notion of time progressing has been hinted at for the reader. The writer has prepared them. Therefore when the new scene starts, six hours have passed, and it’s straight into the action, without jolting the reader.
4. To move the story forward
Imagine if there were no scene breaks within a novel. It would just go on and on and on and probably wouldn’t be an enjoyable read. It would be like listening to a 10 hour concert without respite – eventually you’d get bored and switch off.
Writers must always move the story forward at every opportunity, and novels need scene breaks, because they are another way of helping to keep the story momentum, and we’ve already looked at ways of doing that with Points 1 and 2 - changes of scene and change of character viewpoints.
These all work together to keep the story moving forward.
Where should scene breaks be located?
Placement of scene breaks is vital – they should be at the right moment within the story, without letting the narrative drag on and on until there is nothing more to say in the scene, or without prematurely cutting off the scene and thus leaving the scene (and the reader) hanging in mid air.
Writers often make the mistake of inserting a break at the wrong moment. The idea is really to break at a moment that would seem natural, or the writer can end the scene like a mini cliff-hanger in order to keep the reader interested.
On the whole, a scene break should occur when everything in a scene has been said, i.e. all necessary information has been imparted and the story is ready to move forward. Scenes should never drag on. This will bore the reader and make the story untenable.
But how does a writer know exactly when to insert one?
That’s the million dollar question, and it doesn’t have a definitive answer. That’s because every writer is unique in their writing - their style, their voice and their approach.
In truth, there is no right or wrong. Placing scene breaks comes with experience, when a writer becomes used to the scenes he or she is writing, so they intuitively know when the breaks should be placed. The more you write, and get become better skilled, the more instinctively scene breaks will occur to you.
But what happens if a scene break in your novel happens right at the end of your current A4 page, but you need to show that there is a break in the narrative? Without a way of showing a break, the next page would look like a continuation of the story and thus might confuse the reader.
The way writers get around this is to insert three asterisks, centred, like this:-
* * *
In novels, the general rule is that you don’t asterisize at any time other than if the scene ends right at the foot of your page. For all other scene breaks in novels, use the ‘three returns’ method (or more if working with single line spacing, according to a publisher/editor’s particular requirements).
Short stories are a little different where scene breaks are concerned because you can use either gaps or centred asterisks to denote scene breaks, but it’s always wise check the publisher’s requirements first before submitting your work.
Scene breaks are one of those things that writers don’t really think too much about, but yet are incredibly important because of how versatile they are at showing narrative breaks and transitions. They are standard cursors to show the editor or publisher that you understand the idea of general story formatting, that you know what you’re doing.
Next week: Prologues – Pros and cons