We’ve touched on chapter and scene breaks previously; however lots of people have asked for more information on this subject, particularly when it comes to recognising the right moment to either use a scene break or to create a new chapter.
Firstly, it’s worth understanding the difference between a scene break and a chapter and what they mean, because while they may form many of the different aspects of writing, they perform different functions and they are not entirely straightforward – the explanation behind how to use them and when to use them is a little more complex.
Scene breaks are exactly that – a break in the current scene, which can happen for a variety of reasons, such as moving the story forward to the next important scene or changing the character POV. Not only that, but scene breaks are also used in order to show the passage of time.
Chapters are another way of moving the story forward coherently and cleanly. But chapters represent an entirely new section of the story.
Although their functions may seem similar, they do perform different tasks. But how do you distinguish which one you need to use? When is the right time to break a scene? How do you know when to begin a new chapter?
There are no rules. Often it comes down to intuition and experience – the more you work on your novel, the more you understand what is needed or how you want to change it. That said, there are some things which will help the writer choose the correct one.
When to do a scene break
Scenes cannot go on forever; otherwise you’ll end up with endless narrative that veers off on so many tangents that the story eventually becomes lost. Scene breaks keep the story in check; they break what are, in effect, huge chunks of narrative, description and dialogue into more manageable sizes for the reader. It makes it easier for them to follow the story, and it makes it easier for the writer to write it.
If you are unsure when to include a scene break, first ask the following questions:-
1. Do I need to change the point of view to another character?
2. Is the story plodding on? Does it lack direction? Is it running out of steam?
3. Have my characters run out of things to say?
4. Do I need to move ahead in time by hours or days?
5. Do I need to use a flashback?
The answer to the above list will inevitably be yes. If you are writing a third-person multiple viewpoint novel, then you will need to change POV at some point to keep the story interesting, fresh and dynamic.
If the story begins to plod, it means it has lost direction and the scenes are going on far longer than necessary. A scene break offers the chance to move the story forward; it keeps things moving and in so doing, keeps the reader interested. Don’t loiter with boring, mundane detail. Move on.
After John left, Sarah made herself a coffee and sat down to watch TV, since she didn’t know when he would be back, but she knew she would have to start dinner around 6pm. She flicked through the channels, deciding what to watch…
Zzzz. This example shows what happens when the narrative becomes boring, unnecessary and does nothing to further the plot.
When your characters run out of interesting things to say – the kind of things that have no bearing to the story or plot – then it’s time for a scene break. Often writers don’t know when to give their characters a break. But the moment they start talking about the mundane is the time to have a scene break. For example:
Sarah noticed Jane in the garden and approached. ‘Those roses are coming along.’
‘They are, especially since we’ve had such good weather,’ Jane said. ‘I think I might plant some more for next year.’
‘The colours are amazing.’
The dialogue in this example has become mundane and doesn’t move the story forward. Readers don’t want to know about Jane’s roses. Dialogue should only concern what is vital to advancing the story.
New writers in particular have a tendency to describe everything, and I mean everything, which includes characters moving forward hours or days. For example, if you describe a character leaving the house, getting into the car, starting the engine, driving somewhere, avoiding traffic, parking up, getting out…all this boring and unnecessary exposition can be transitioned by a new scene that simply shows the character at the destination. In other words, the new scene has allowed the story to move forward cleanly without pages of boring description, for example:
John headed to the car, knew he had to get to see Olivia.
(Scene break, and new scene below)
John pulled up in the car, looked up at the imposing Georgian house belonging to Olivia’s parents…
Instead of describing John’s journey, and risking boring the reader, the scene break allows the story to move forward and cut out unnecessary waffle, and it starts again at a pertinent moment, outside Olivia’s house.
A scene break is also a good way of breaking away from the main action of the story if you want to use a flashback. This signifies to the reader that there is a new scene, yet at the same time it ensures there is no confusion, for example:
Bill looked at the old house, now crumbling with age, yet still full with memories. Despite its appearance, he could still hear the sounds of children’s voices, full with cheer. To him, the old girl still looked beautiful.
(Scene break, and new flashback scene below)
‘Welcome to the Manor House,’ Father Brown had said, the day Billy Logan arrived with his satchel, flat cap and gas mask, and a neat little tag showing his name…
The scene break allows Bill’s flashback to take place, without interfering with the main narrative. The reader is in no doubt that a flashback is occurring because A) the narrative hinted this with Bill’s memories and B) it uses past pluperfect tense, i.e. ‘Father Brown had said…’ The word ‘had’ signifies that this scene has happened farther in the past.
Scene breaks are a very useful way to move things along without disruptive the narrative flow. But by asking those important questions above, you will have an idea when to apply a scene break, but also a reason why.
In Part 2 we’ll look at when it’s best to use chapters instead of scene breaks and how to use them effectively.