Forming Section and Chapter Breaks
Sometimes, late at night, while we are editing that not-so-great draft, it is tempting to set up a paragraph somewhere in the middle of a long winded bit. Or, deep in our own thoughts we don’t realize we just gave our reader whip lash. Teacher and writer herself, Meriah gives us some rules on what the right way is.
By: Meriah Crawford
Section breaks are fairly simple. These breaks are used throughout a chapter or short story to indicate that there has been a change in scene, location, or time. Sometimes they’re also used to indicate that the perspective has changed. These breaks are helpful indicators for the reader that something significant has happened, and it helps them adjust to a shift.
When a writer skips a needed section break, it will knock the reader off balance. A recent example I encountered is in J. K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The scene begins in the office of private investigator Cormoran Strike, who is at the center of the novel:
He took down her trench coat and handed it to her.
“We’ll pretend you’re my sister, Annabel. You can be helping me pick out a present for my wife.”
“What’s the death-threat man’s problem?” asked Robin, as they sat side-by-side on the Tube. “Who is he?”
As you can see, Rowling transitions directly from the office to the tube—the UK’s version of a subway system—without any break or indication that time and distance have changed. This is abrupt, confusing, and distracting for the reader—all things that a good writer will generally try to avoid.
Indicating section breaks simply involves leaving an extra blank line between two paragraphs. However, many editors like to see some additional indicator of a section break to ensure that they know exactly where those breaks fall when they’re reading the work or, later, formatting it for publication. This is especially important if line breaks fall at the end or start of a page. Some examples of preferred section break indicators are three pound signs centered (###), or a single pound sign, or an asterisk or trio of asterisks. The best way to know which approach to take is to review editorial or submission guidelines on the publication or publisher’s website.
Chapter breaks, on the other hand, are a bit more complex. For example, depending on the genre, a work may be better suited to short, fast-paced chapters. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, nonfiction book chapters may be quite long, and cover a great deal of territory. Understanding the conventions of your genre through reading and/or exploring the appropriate section of a library or bookstore is essential. As a general rule, thrillers, suspense, some horror and mysteries, and some romance novels will tend towards shorter chapters. Many literary novels, as well as some fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and other works will have significantly longer chapters. And of course, it’s wise to have variation in the length of chapters throughout a work.
Breaks can occur in similar places as section breaks, though the break in scene, time, etc. will typically be more significant. Some less experienced writers tend to want to follow their characters through even the dull routines of the day, such as brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and driving to work. However, unless these events are relevant to the story, they should be skipped over with a section or chapter break.
Some writers, especially when writing a book with great suspense or tension, will end a chapter at a key point in the action. The pacing of these breaks is similar to that of commercial breaks in TV shows—they want to make sure you don’t turn the TV off or change the channel, so they offer a mini cliffhanger to keep you engaged. Chapter breaks are also appropriate when something especially intense or emotional has happened, to offer a sort of break or rest—time to reflect, perhaps.
When working with multiple viewpoints, authors will often start a new chapter when they are switching to a different viewpoint. This can be seen in books like Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In Talking it Over, Julian Barnes labels each section as he switches from one first-person account to another, though he also has chapter breaks. It’s also possible, though more difficult and risky, to shift perspectives within a chapter without labels—by using section breaks—but this requires significant skill and effort to keep readers from being confused.
And of course, each writer’s individual style will influence which approach that writer chooses to take. The chapters in As I Lay Dying are sometimes quite short, for example—and one chapter is famously made up of a single line: “My mother is a fish.” Chapters can also be enormously long—but readers, agents, and editors are unlikely to be fond of that approach. It’s also possible to break a book into groups of chapters, perhaps based on different locations, generations, and so forth.
In the case of nonfiction writing (memoir aside—memoirs are typically written more like fiction than nonfiction), chapters will generally have a more formal format. The chapter will have an introduction containing a claim or statement of purpose, and will then focus on supporting the claim or fulfilling the purpose. The end of the chapter should have a conclusion that may be brief, or may include more exploratory material, suggestions, or predictions. This type of writing is an entirely different beast, and many good books exist to explain it in far more detail.
A Final Note
As a rule, creating section and chapter breaks is something easily done in revision, so don’t feel as though you have to make those decisions while you write. Especially for less experienced writers, it can be quite difficult to figure out where they should go, and it’s definitely not something you should allow to interfere with your writing. You may also find it’s helpful to get advice from friends or a writing group about where breaks will be most effective.
Meriah Lysistrata Crawford teaches research and writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is a private investigator, a writer, and an editor. Meriah co-edited the multi-genre anthology Trust & Treachery: Tales of Power and Intrigue. She has also published short stories in several genres, essays, a variety of scholarly work, and a poem about semicolons. Meriah has an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in literature and criticism. For more information, please visit her website at www.meriahcrawford.com, or see her on Facebook or Twitter @MeriahCrawford.