Them’s the breaks: where to put paragraph, scene and chapter breaks in your work

This post was inspired by two things; a blog post and comments lamenting the difficulties of putting scene and chapter breaks in, and a recently read manuscript with scene breaks apparently inserted based on whether or not the main character had just said something gnomic and profound. (You know I love your stuff ♥.)

Choosing where to break your text shouldn’t be, and isn’t, that difficult.  It is as simple as one, two three: focus, sequence, event.  These three concepts are all you need to consider when developing the structure of your story.

To demonstrate the following concepts, I’ll use some of the writing in my ‘unpublishable drek’ file.

Paragraph breaks: Focus

Paragraph breaks help to deliver the flow and rhythm of the work to readers.  Leaving aside experimental form and poetic prose, paragraph breaks should be, for the most part, organic, and determined by the content of the scene.

Dialogue

Dialogue is the easiest.  Just remember to keep everything related to each person in its own paragraph.  Here’s an example with badly placed paragraph breaks:

Leda moved first, reaching a hand out to Valerie.

“Come on. We’ll go back to the keep.” But Valerie was looking at the horse. She struggled up, feeling the tears on her face freezing in the cold wind. She grabbed the reins.

The horse snorted and shied. “What are you doing?” cried Leda.

“I’m going to ride down the mountain.” Leda stared at her.

“You can’t. The wolves, the cold; it’s too far…” “I’m going to try. I have to. Crow will have an army here before winter is gone.

Spring will come and he’ll war and he’ll win.”

Confusing?  Try it again, with the paragraph breaks in the right places.

Leda moved first, reaching a hand out to Valerie. “Come on. We’ll go back to the keep.”

But Valerie was looking at the horse. She struggled up, feeling the tears on her face freezing in the cold wind. She grabbed the reins. The horse snorted and shied.

“What are you doing?” cried Leda.

“I’m going to ride down the mountain.”

Leda stared at her. “You can’t. The wolves, the cold; it’s too far…”

“I’m going to try. I have to. Crow will have an army here before winter is gone. Spring will come and he’ll war and he’ll win.”

Now action and dialogue are linked.  Each time you switch character, you put in a paragraph break.  That way the reader knows who is speaking, and what they are doing.

Action

Action is a little trickier.  There’s a lot going on, and you need to convey urgency and movement, and still flow smoothly.

So here’s a bad example:

Valerie looked behind them and saw the figures of men on toboggans, sweeping down the mountain towards them. She dug her heels into the horse’s side and whipped him with the reins. He lurched forward, powdery snow fountaining up around them. But the hiss of the toboggans grew louder. Leda shrieked as a toboggan sliced past them. The horse reared and dumped them into the snow.  Valerie struggled to her feet, heavy skirts wrapped around her legs. Leda exploded out of the snow next to her, gasping. They were like flies in molasses, struggling to move. Valerie glanced behind her and saw a toboggan coming straight for them. The man on it launched himself off and thudded into them and all three of them cart-wheeled into the snow. More toboggans sliced past them, the men leaping off. Valerie spat out a mouthful of snow. Someone grabbed her arm and hauled her upright. She looked up into Osnir’s predator eyes. This close she could smell the rank scent of his body, long unwashed in deep winter.

Too dense!  We need to give each moment room to breathe, while still conveying that feeling of urgency.

Valerie looked behind them and saw the figures of men on toboggans, sweeping down the mountain towards them. She dug her heels into the horse’s side and whipped him with the reins. He lurched forward, powdery snow fountaining up around them.

But the hiss of the toboggans grew louder. Leda shrieked as a toboggan sliced past them. The horse reared and dumped them into the snow. Valerie struggled to her feet, heavy skirts wrapped around her legs. Leda exploded out of the snow next to her, gasping. They were like flies in molasses, struggling to move.

Valerie glanced behind her and saw a toboggan coming straight for them. The man on it launched himself off and thudded into them and all three of them cart-wheeled into the snow. More toboggans sliced past them, the men leaping off.

Valerie spat out a mouthful of snow. Someone grabbed her arm and hauled her upright. She looked up into Osnir’s predator eyes. This close she could smell the rank scent of his body, long unwashed in deep winter.

Here I’ve broken the sentences up into groups, based on the sequence of actions.  Valerie sees the toboggans; the girls fall off, the toboggans catch up to them; Osnir grabs her.  If I had more than one character doing things, I would have a separate paragraph for each character, too, just like the dialogue example.

Exposition

Definitely the trickiest, but also the least important.  As long as you have SOME paragraph breaks in your exposition, you’ll be okay.  Again, try to think in logical groups.

This is a little transition scene.

In deep winter the snowfall never seemed to end. The soft hissing as it fell played on Valerie’s nerves. The long dark nights were filled with the howling of wolves. Leda grew thin, and Valerie thinner, though her belly grew round.

The ranks of the villagers dwindled as Osnir worked them to death keeping the high road open. More soldiers came, until the Keep was bursting.

The women were pulled out of their warm rooms to ferry water to the workers. They both developed chilblains on their fingers, and their skin cracked in the cold.

And still more men came.

Notice I’ve grouped sentences that relate.  First setting, then events, then what’s happening to the women, and finally the link to the next scene.

Scene breaks: Sequence

Have you heard of the concept of “Scene and Sequel”?  That’s when you have a scene of action, followed by a scene of introspection, which leads to the next action, and so on, ad infinitum.

This formula works, and works well.  But if you’re still confused, here’s an easier way to look at it.  If you have a change of location, put in a scene break.  If you have a significant time lapse, insert a scene break.  If you swap to another POV character, insert a scene break.

That should cover most situations.  Of course there will be exceptions to these guidelines, but in general, they lead to neat, encapsulated scenes with clear beginnings and endings.  And as a plus, it’s easy to write transitions around scenes that have discrete beginnings and endings.

Here are a few examples for you.  First, a time break:

She bled for her husband on her wedding night, as a good bride should. He left her when he was done, as the wolves howled in the forest below.

#

The witch Leda came to her in the morning, with the hand loom and her workbasket. She said no words of comfort, but sat beside Valerie and held her hand as she wept.

Then a location break:

From the muddy courtyard he looked up at her window. She did not need to see his face to know that vengeance was on his mind.

#

Valerie picked up her empty bucket and walked slowly towards the treeline, her bladder painful.

Chapter breaks: Event

Chapter breaks are definitely the most difficult to determine, and everyone seems to have their own way of doing things.  It doesn’t really seem to matter how you do it, or whether you do it at all; Terry Pratchett doesn’t use chapters, and his work doesn’t suffer from it.

But again, there is a formula to use if you are completely at sea, and that is based on the events in your story.

A story event is made up of one or more scenes or varying lengths.  What’s an event?  Your beginning is an event.  Your inciting incident is an event.  The main character confronting the villain for the first time is an event.

Each event ends with a change; in the stakes, in the character, in the world.  Those changes are a good place to take a breath and put in a chapter break.  Because now you have a new emotional or physical challenge for the MC, and thus a reason for the reader to move forward.

If you have more than one POV character, you’ll often need to change chapters when you change characters.  You can also use a location change as a chapter break, but again, only if it is related to a new event.

I hope that makes sense.  And if you have any questions or ideas to add, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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16 thoughts on “Them’s the breaks: where to put paragraph, scene and chapter breaks in your work

  1. Pingback: The Secret to Section Breaks | Out of My Mind

  2. Great post, very useful. I came over from Graham Storrs’ blog just to see why he had a link to you. Sooo glad I did, nice to have some ideas confirmed (and others challenged)

  3. Pingback: Them’s the breaks: where to put paragraph, scene and chapter breaks in your work (via Not Enough Words) | Darksculptures Thinks & Writes

  4. I was just ranting on Linda’s blog about this and saw the pingback. Thanks! I need all the help I can get. Do you mind if I print this?

    Do you think there’s a difference with genres?
    What if you change POV characters in a scene? Start the scene in her POV but change to his mid-scene??? And, yes, I have been told not to change POV mid-way through a scene. I’ve also been told it’s okay. Any advice on that? :) There seems to be a difference of opinion depending on who you ask. I’m just curious what you think.

    • Hi Dayner,

      POV shifts are tricky, and while the rules say “don’t change mid paragraph/scene/whatever”, there are enough examples of this to show that it works. Sometimes.

      However.

      If you are going to do this, then it needs to be the norm throughout your entire work. If it’s just one or two instances per chapter where you do this, then my recommendation is find a better way to do it.

      Whether it works or not is up to the reader to decide, and depends on the ability of the author to make the transition clear and avoid confusion. What one author can get away with, another will struggle to achieve.

  5. Thank you for this post, Merrilee. I have very little trouble with paragraph breaks, and only a little with chapter breaks. It’s the scene breaks that trip me up.

    I thought I was breaking at the logical places, but then some of my critique partners told me I used too many and should use more transitions instead. Some of the instances they cited would be like your “time break” example. What do you consider “a significant time lapse”?

    • Hi Linda,

      For significant, I would say a few hours, or next day, or morning to afternoon. But if that’s not enough to gauge whether there should be a break, then look at where things change. Is something different with the character or the world before and after the time change? If not, then you probably don’t need a break.

      If you’re brave, post some examples on your blog :) Or you can e-mail me some and I will give you my free and unqualified opinion :)

  6. Great post, it kind of reinforced how I write, so that made me feel confident in my ability to break things up.

    And I couldn’t agree more about chapter breaks being used as framework for events as I’ve read so many works that don’t seem to understand that concept and will write chapters where there is no progress or development and others that have so many events that it’s overwhelming as a reader.

    Have a great day!

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