What’s the deal with section breaks?

editing, writing

I’ve been thinking about when it’s appropriate to use a section break in the middle of a story. When I asked a friend, who writes fiction, he told me he uses one when he changes point of view, location, or when he wants to emphasize that two ideas are both key—this is important and this is also important. I tend to overuse section breaks in my nonfiction, probably so I don’t have to think carefully about transitions. Too many section breaks and you get a story that feels fragmented, but breaks in just the right spot can be dynamic and powerful.

Do you use section breaks? How often, and why?

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17 thoughts on “What’s the deal with section breaks?

  1. Since I write in first person, I only use section breaks during a specific scene change. I usually have between 2-4 scene changes per chapter. Normally I can seamlessly go from one scene to the next, but if I can’t then I’ll break it, but even then if I have to do it, I’ll only do it once in a chapter. I try to avoid them as much as possible.

    1. Interesting, Tonya. Since you purposely limit your section breaks, what do you see as the downside of using them too often? And do you have any strategies for ending/beginning sections that mitigate those downsides?

  2. I guess for me, when using a section break you’re showing it’s a new scene. If you can seamlessly go from scene to scene without a break, the reader doesn’t realize that. The book is easy to read and seamless for them. When you have a section break, then the reader knows it’s a new scene. But, like I said, it’s easier to go from scene to scene when writing in only one POV. I’ve read books in 1 POV where there are a lot of section breaks and I don’t like it because the chapter jumps around a lot and it can get confusing. If I don’t like it, then other readers probably don’t like it either. If it’s in more than 1 POV, then yes section breaks will be used more.

    1. Strategies? Hmm…I just try to keeps things seamless and lead into a new scene. If it doesn’t read right, then I’ll break it. If it’s not related to the scene I just got done with, then I’ll make it a new chapter. Sorry, I know that’s not the greatest explanation.

  3. I hadn’t thought about using section break as a lazy tool to avoid transitions. I’ll have to stop being so lazy. Thanks for pointing out my laziness to me.

  4. I’m really glad you posted about this, because as someone who usually writes poetry but is learning about cnf, I’ve wondered what the rule is for section breaks. Some essays I’ve seen break after every paragraph or two, and I kind of like the disjointed feeling that gives, like the essay is actually a bunch of vignettes, and the total effect is greater than the sum of the pieces. So it seems like there actually is no rule, exactly. You just make intentional decisions and hope it works out for the best? Maybe the better question is, What kind of little symbols, if any, do you use for your section breaks?

    1. Ha. My preferred symbol is ~ centered, but when drafting I often use * * * for some reason. There is a certain kind of literary essay that benefits from more section breaks. It is less narrative, so losing the pacing (like an early commenter referred to re: a short story with a single POV) isn’t a concern. I think of that kind of essay as a segmented lyric. Lyric because the meaning arrives via an accretion of impressions/scenes/vignettes and the force or the language itself. Segmented because it has so many freaking segments. However, I will confess to over-using section breaks in essays, sometimes because I’m lazy, and sometimes because I’m trying to make the essay seem more literary than it really is. Section breaks aren’t the right tools with most standard reflective/narrative personal essays—at least not very often.

  5. As a fiction writer I hate putting in section breaks. It does feel lazy. Like going to black in the middle of a film. No. There has to be some transition shot to bring the reader/viewer out of one scene and into another. I’m reading “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and some of his ‘chapters’ are filled with section breaks. It feels choppy, but it works. In the piece I’m working on (read: supposed to be working on but am instead trolling) I will need section breaks due to it’s ‘modular’ nature and time shifts. It won’t be clear without them. But still, it feels lazy.

    1. I’m starting to wonder if there is a root-level difference between genres here. Like a different set of rules for when and how to use section breaks.

      Rules isn’t the right word. Cost-benefit analysis is closer to what I mean. You can use almost any technique, but what does it add and what does it take away?

      And the film connection is interesting, Aaron. Because isn’t any scene change in a film a “section break”? Unless the film is all in one location, it’s probably set up more like a segmented narrative essay, right?

  6. Full disclosure: I really have no idea what a segmented narrative essay is.

    But here’s my thought: A scene change in a film acts like a segment break. But there’s a transition shot. Usually a long shot or an extreme close-up. It’s a detail and it’s not altogether unimportant to the narrative. So I hesitate to call them segment breaks because it’s still contributing to the whole of the narrative (i.e. scene setting, character revealing (say it’s a glass of alcohol for the extreme close-up)). So I think there are more often scene transitions in movies. For me, literal segment break in a movie would have to be like going to black (which some movies do do well — Meet Joe Black, for example).

    1. Aaron, you should probably be writing. But since you keep commenting: section breaks have transitions as well…the sentences and words and themes that lead the reader in and out of them. So I think I reject your distinction of scene transitions versus scene breaks in movies. A scene break has a transition, both out of the first scene and into the second scene. And I think in an essay with lots of section breaks we find the same things.

      Though a narrative essay or story needs to make more use of those long shots or close up shots (in words) when it transitions, and a segmented lyric essay (think a personal, mostly non-narrative nonfiction essay, like a series of photographs or tunes that eventually echo/blend/resonate together) can afford to be more abrupt with its section breaks. So…Meet Joe Black is a cinematic segmented essay? Hmm, I better get back to work as well.

      1. I may or may not have lost my train of thought on this topic(ive been writing!) as it relates to the essay/non-fiction piece. However in regard to movies, yes, technically speaking there may be little difference between a scene break and a scene transition; both accomplish the same thing (but let’s humor me). However, going to black between scenes is a palate cleanser entirely and functions differently in a viewers mind (lot of adverbs in that sentence!). So that’s why I chose to bifurcate the two as it relates to the essay. The non-broken essay (ie no segment breaks) works like a movie with scene transitions (as I delineated above). An essay with segment breaks is like going to black as a scene break (again, as I separate them).

        What this boils down to: I will not be rejected, sir! No, sir. I shall reject you! (I may have a problem)

      2. The force of your rhetoric is overwhelming me, much like trying to drink from Stanley Spadowski’s fire hose after finding the marble in the oatmeal.

        By the way, I noticed you used a section break in your comment.

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