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. Breaks are so tough–I never think rules when it comes to them, oddly enough. My measure tends to be so long as there is a reason for them (scene change, time of day, etc) then they work–and there has to be some bulk to them too.

    The punctuation issue I struggle with is possessive with an S names, ie is it the Jones’ house or the Jones’s house? I’ve read that both can be used–I’m eager to see how the copy editor who looks at my final ms will decide–I am looking forward to knowing!:)


    1. Erika, that was my reasoning too, but I seem to be hit and miss on what actually constitutes a scene change, time passage, etc. 😀

      Oh yes, that pesky possessive S thing. I made a rule for myself that it’s Jones’ and I stick to it. Actually, I think it’s accepted both ways now, you just have to be consistent. But don’t anyone quote me on that.


  2. I’ve noticed with my hero James Herbert, he sometimes ends a chapter in a cliffhanger type style and what happens next is on the next chapter. Of course, he doesn’t do that every time. What gets me is when you have multiple POV paragraphs. I get that I am meant to put space between them, but get confused when I have also been told that if your switching POV you need a separate chapter but sometimes, the change of POV only lasts for a short time (say less than 3 paragraphs) and if you separated ALL of those as chapters, you’d end up with a novel that has 100 chapters all under one page…yep, all this can do your head in…bleh


  3. I cannot imagine an editor impressed by the excellence of one’s writing style, the beauty of the story written, the exciting plot line, or the compelling characterizations deciding to forget the whole thing because the breaks are wrong. I understand your concern about this issue because I didn’t find placing breaks in my MS very obvious but rather iffy, but I placed them where I thought they should be. I say use your instincts and be happy until an editor says different. Anyway, that’s what I’m doing. I doubt that an editor will want to see more of my work because he/she is taken with the professional way I place my breaks. Right? Great breaks won’t do it. Someone wanted to see your work and I doubt that breaks were a big issue either way. I read somewhere that a writer had given up on the MS she sent for further review to an editor by the time she heard back from the editor. Her work was published.


    1. I absolutely agree that my manuscript will not be rejected, or accepted, based on my skill at using section breaks, Carol. ❗ This has become a personal thing. My problem with them makes me feel stupid and I can’t stand that.


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