Quick Tips: Scene Breaks
Ah… the mystery of scene breaks and what to do with them. It’s such a little thing, and yet its impact on the flow and pace of a story is important. Scene breaks are a lot like commas: everyone needs them but the rules of use can be vague.
So what’s a writer to do? Glad you asked. First let’s address what scene breaks are used for. Most authors use them to indicate one or several of the following when a new chapter is not needed.
Shift in point of view
If your story is not told from a single point of view, the scene break can be used to indicate a change of the point of view character. There are a few guidelines when changing point of view. First, let your reader know early who the new point of view character is. Don’t leave them guessing or they will stop and reread to figure out what they missed, thus pulling them out of the story. Second, avoid changing POV within a scene. Third, avoid repeating the same scene from another point of view. Fourth, never change POV in the middle of a paragraph. This is particularly hard for authors writing in third person. For a more detailed article about point of view shifts, check out Jen Matera’s article “Writing Pitfall #5: Head Hopping.”
Change in setting
When the setting changes from one location to another, a scene break is often used. So what should you do if your character goes from the kitchen to the living room? Take the reader with you and leave the scene break for a bigger change in setting, such a shift from the board meeting to the BBQ in the neighbor’s backyard. If the change in setting is minor but is combined with a time shift, a scene break is appropriate.
Speaking of time shifts… Scene breaks are used to move the story along and skip the day-to-day activities that don’t have an impact on the story because a story is simply a string of scenes that move the plot from point A to point B. Some authors find it difficult use time shifts, believing (incorrectly) that they must account for every waking moment of the point-of-view character. This is not so. It’s not important to the plot of story to detail a shopping list or show the character cleaning unless it is pivotal to the plot. Mundane lists of the character’s morning routine of showering, getting dressed, styling hair and makeup, eating breakfast, etc. will only slow down the pace of the story and give the reader an unnecessary info dump. Readers will assume that the character has gone through the accepted social norms of hygiene before they appear in the scene.
Scene breaks can be used to slow down the pace of a story, insert a cliffhanger, switch to another subplot, increase suspense, or any number of reasons to increase reader involvement. When you should use scene breaks for pacing is not as clear-cut. Much of this comes down to what feels right, author intuition, or a gut feeling. Knowing when to use these will come with experience.
Finally, I’d like to touch on the basic foundation of how to build a scene. Ideally a scene is written to give the reader necessary information and move the plot along. A scene is finished when everything important has been said. The real trick is knowing when to come into a scene and when to leave. There’s a popular saying scriptwriters use that I feel can be applied to fiction writing as well.
In late, out early.
What this means is your scenes should start when the action is already underway, skipping all the greetings and mundane details of your character’s arrival on the scene, and then leave your scenes early before it gets bogged down by the good-byes, mundane details, or the temptation to summarize scene for your reader.
When it comes to scene breaks and when to use them, much of it comes down to the personal preference of the author. Some authors write in such a way that they use very few scene breaks, preferring to use chapter breaks instead. Others will write scenes that may have a few short lines, but important lines, nonetheless.
Do you have your own set of rules for scene breaks? Please share them. We’d love to read about it.
Now… go write something!