Scene Breaks | Proper Manuscript Format | William Shunn
Scene Breaks

A reader writes to ask:

[My question] regards major and minor scene breaks. I understand that one sets off a blank-line break with #, but what about a more significant scene break, the sort one usually sees in print marked with a blank line, a divider (often three asterisks, centered), and another blank line? Is it as simple (and aesthetically unappealing) as placing # signs in the blank lines? Or does one leave the blank lines blank in this case?

The answer may be blindingly obvious to everyone but me, and if so, my apologies for troubling you. But I find both options to be less than pleasing to the eye, so if I'm going to inflict one on an editor, I'd much rather inflict the right one.

An excellent question. I think we've all seen major scene breaks like the ones you describe in published books—something less than a chapter break but more than an ordinary scene break. Sometimes they might be rendered in a book as several blank lines followed by an unindented paragraph with the first several words in bold. But how should one render this super-scene break succinctly in a draft manuscript?

I've never seen this done, but my suggestion would be to use three hash symbols centered together on a line (# # #) as opposed to just one (#). The hash symbol is the typesetters mark for indicating space, so I think any editor or typesetter worth her salt would recognize that you intend this to be a higher-level scene break than ordinary. (Of course, you could also explain your intention in your cover letter to the editor.)

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A reader writes to ask:

I am a bit confused about scene changes. I know that they have to be denoted by a single line with a "#", but if I use them at every scene change my plot will "unglue" a bit. There is something a bit Proustian to the flow of my novel that I don't want to interrupt, and the only breaks that I want are those between chapters. For example, suppose the protagonist is writing about his home. Then he starts to reminisce about another era, when he lived in a much poorer home in another country. From everything I have read online, it seems I'd better note this scene break between his actual home and his subsequent reminiscence of the old residence; but I feel something of quality will be compromised if I do it. Should I do as I wish with little fear of making some agent raise his eyes towards heaven, or should I be punctilious and proper and leave a blank line with the # at every line change, irrespective of how I feel about it?

You are under no obligation to indicate a flashback or other shift in time or space with a scene break. A scene break is simply one of many stylistic tools you can use to make such an indication. If you feel that an uninterrupted flow is best for the effect you want to achieve, then that is perfectly fine. If you do your job properly, then the reader should have no trouble following the change whether or not you call attention to it with a skipped line.

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Testifying with boldface

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A reader writes to ask:

Is the occasional Bold word in a manuscript okay? Because every time I change point-of-view, I leave an empty line (which from now on will be filled with a #), and make the first word of the next paragraph bold, just to make it clear to the reader that the point of view has shifted. Or will that depend on who I send my manuscript to?

Your questions evoke a whole thicket of intertwined issues which I will attempt to unbraid for you. The first of these has to do with how best to indicate a point-of-view shift in your fiction. There's no right or wrong way to do this. Some writers feel no compunction about switching POVs without any typographical indication, which is fine if you have enough control over your omnicient narration. Using a scene break or even a chapter break to indicate the shift is the more common technique, and should be sufficient in and of itself. The first couple of sentences after the break ought to make the POV change perfectly clear without any need to employ trickery like boldface words.

This raises our second issue, which is the proper use of boldface text. Boldface is not seen much in fiction, at least not within the text itself. It is seen most commonly in non-fiction, where it is used to emphasize keywords and terms that relate to the subject at hand. From time to time you might see it employed in fiction for typographical effect—for instance, to indicate text that appears on a computer screen, perhaps in an instant-message exchange, or to highlight some other kind of quoted passage. It's rare enough, though, that in the olden days there wasn't a good way to indicate boldface from your typewriter keyboard. Instead, you had to draw a squiggly line directly on the page underneath the text you wanted emphasized.

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A reader writes to ask:

My question is in regards to formatting a prologue. My story is a fantasy/sci-fi tale that has two separate events that occur to two separate groups that lay the foundation for the actual "chapter 1" of my tale.

In my manuscript, I want them to be the prologue/precursor to my story, but I am unsure as to what the correct formatting rule would be (if there is one) in connecting the two. Do I just add an extra space and start the new scene or do I need to add a new heading of some sort?

There is no rule about headers for new scenes in fiction. The standard thing to do in your scenario would be to just skip a line and start the new scene—we call this a "scene break" or a "line break"—but really you can do whatever you want. You could label the two scenes "1." and "2." within the prologue if you wanted, or you could treat each like a separate prologue and call them "Prologue A" and "Prologue B." You don't even need to call the prologue a prologue if you don't want to. You could simply label it "Earlier" or "1987" or "February" or "Bob Jones." Or you could give it no label at all.

If you go to the bookstore or your own bookshelf and start flipping through novels at random, I'm sure you'll see all those methods, and more. The point is, it's your book and you can call your chapters and scenes what you like, if you like. Whatever you think works best for your story.

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