Craft, Editing, Fiction, Writing

The Secret to Section Breaks

I apologize if you expected I was going to reveal the secret to knowing when and where to use section breaks. I don’t have it. If I were a less obsessed writer, I would break where it seemed natural to me and be done with it. Let an editor sort it out. But I am obsessed and I have become increasingly aware that my nature is not to be trusted in this breaking matter.

Are you experiencing déjà vu? Yes, I brought up this subject less than two weeks ago. The next day, Merrilee Faber wrote an excellent post explaining the ins and outs of paragraph, section, and chapter breaks. I read it, of course, and it seemed so simple. Then I went back to editing with my clear new understanding and soon realized there is an enormous disparity between what I think I know and what I actually know.

I have now called into question 90% of the section breaks in my manuscript. I have also pulled dozens of novels off my shelves to see how the pros do it. Ha! These authors all making the same choices would be just too simple, wouldn’t it? What I did notice is the disconcerting degree to which I would have used breaks where they didn’t and would not have where they did. In other words, I learned nothing from my “research.”

You might be wondering why someone who spends a good bit of blog space denigrating Writing Rules would get so bent out of shape over this one. Well, you see, I can’t abide knowing there’s a rule I don’t understand. How else could I decide whether I want to follow or break it? You have to know the rules before you can break the rules. And yes, it’s also a matter of pride. How can something so simple elude me?

So, what do the books say? One of my favorite revision books is Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon, so I looked up what she had to say about section breaks.

Scene breaks: This is the break between sections in your story. If the point of view remains the same and not much time has passed, the break is indicated by a double-double line space. If the point of view changes and/or there is a larger shift of time or space, double line space then use one or three asterisks or pound signs, centered on the line. Use another line space before you begin your next line of text after the break. You do not need to indent the first paragraph after the break; indentation style will be determined when the manuscript is typeset.

Criminetly! Are you telling me I not only have to know where to put section breaks, but I have to decide which kind of break to use?!  You know what I think? I think the gods of writing rules have conspired to put me in my place.  Well, I’m shaking my fist at you. I will understand this. I will learn to break every section with literary precision. I will dagnabbit!

Your turn: Is there a punctuation or formatting rule that you haven’t mastered?


21 thoughts on “The Secret to Section Breaks”

  1. i’m told i have a problem with hyphens and dashes!
    I also told I over- comma (did I get that one right?)
    oh, and i’m certain you’ve noticed I’m a horrible speller.
    (by the way, still thinking about my strengths and weakness as a writer. Nothing came to the top of my head, talk about blockage)


    1. You can’t tell by my blog, but I’ve cut down on my ellipses use. 😉

      I use a lot of commas too, but I use them properly, so I don’t worry about it. If my future publisher has a different house-style, then I’ll follow it, otherwise I’m doing my thing.

      Spelling? I just always assume it was a typo you didn’t catch before you hit the comment submit button. 😀 BTW, I know you live in Quebec; is French or English your primary language?


      1. I’m anglophone. Neither of my parents speak french, and my hubby has been here since 98 from South Africa and has picked up a ton of french! We do exclusive french in school until grade 3, and while some of my errors are def language related – i just mix them up, we all do here, we have our own dialect! – i am just a bad speller. Much better in recent years believe it or not. I am too impatient to bother with spelling. funny trait in a writer! Lately though I type with one hand (because of baby) so there are more errors than usual that i jut let be. Plus I don’t read my comment before clicking post comment. something i really need to do. my brain is always a step ahead though and doesn’t want to slow down. well, that was a lengthy reply – sorry!


  2. There should be no rules regarding section breaks. I say, just do what feels right, Baby! Maybe the rules aren’t working for you because it’s a rule that can’t be defined. Stories are alive. How could a distant grammarian know what needs to happen in chapter seventeen?

    As for rules that I haven’t mastered, don’t get me started.


  3. This is why I don’t read rule books any more. They just get you twisted up in knots.

    When I open American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I see that he only uses the second type of break mentioned. When I open Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett, I see he only uses the first, as does Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor and Titan by Stephen Baxter.

    My advice (unsolicited) is to pick one type, and stick with it through your whole manuscript. Don’t mix and match.

    In the end, it will be the publisher’s choice, depending on their house style. So you could spend hours re-doing all your section breaks, only to find you need to change it again if and when you get published.


    1. And I have books that use both in the way Elizabeth Lyon explained! But I know that depends on the publisher’s house-style. So yes, I picked *** and used it throughout — probably not in the right places, but there you go. Still, it bugs me that I can’t figure it out. 😀


  4. Mastery = Mystery. I haven’t mastered any of the style rules. In February, I pull out a draft I finished last year and begin the long hard edit. The anxiety builds. There is so much work waiting for me inside that draft. I’m trying to stay optimistic and embrace the errors and corrections for the value they present, which is to make my writing stronger. Of course, in February I’ll need lots of chocolate and consoling.


Do you have a comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.