“The Pesky Scene Break” by Kristin Nelson. 17 September, 2014. Pub Rants, Nelson Literary Agency.
Last month I did my ever-popular webinar Creating the Road Map for Your Novel. Of the ten participants, half had trouble with a powerful writing tool called the scene break. Now, scene breaks are awesome—unless they are overused or not used for maximum impact.
Why do writers use scene breaks? During the webinar, we came up with several reasons:
1. To signal a shift in time (for example, to enter and exit a flashback, or to skip over a brief period of time during which nothing plotworthy happens).
2. To signal a shift in point of view (POV).
3. To build suspense, leaving one scene at a climactic, cliffhanger moment to switch to a new scene.
(To read some great examples, see Janice Hardy’s article on the topic of scene breaks.)
Here are three things about scene breaks to note:
• Don’t use scene breaks too liberally. Think of POV as a movie camera. If you are constantly breaking scenes (moving the narrative camera), your reader is going to be pulled out of one scene and dumped into another. If it happens to often, your reader will get whiplash and lose the narrative thread of your story.
• Scene breaks that signal shifts in time should be used judiciously and only when doing so actually moves the plot forward. Don’t use scene breaks as tools of convenience when they offer no other narrative impact. This type of scene break is the biggest culprit; when it doesn’t work on the page, it creates the most abrupt interruption in the logical flow of the narrative.
• When breaking a scene to skip a period of time, ask yourself what happens during the time you’re choosing to skip. Are you skipping action that should be on the page? I’ve read manuscripts in which the hero conveniently gets conked on the head during a battle scene, only to wake up (after the scene break) once his buddies have defeated the enemy. New writers who are intimidated by writing action/battle scenes, or scenes in which the hero might have to come up with a brilliant plan to save the day, will sometimes conveniently skip them. Don’t fall into that trap!
In summary, whenever you are tempted to toss in a scene break, ask yourself: What is the function of this scene break? And what, if anything, am I skipping over that should appear on the page?