Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I know it's a matter of taste, but when I'm writing a piece of fiction, I don't like to use section breaks. Section breaks are those skipped lines between scenes or passages that act almost like chapter breaks but aren't chapter breaks. They allow a writer to skip directly from one thing to another without writing a transitional passage.

I don't like section breaks, as I've said. I like the narrative to flow unbroken from one thing to the next within a chapter. I also like to write fairly long chapters. As a devotee of three-part structure, more or less, my chapters tend to be built around three scenes, each built from three small acts. I don't jump directly from scene-to-scene; the narrative has to flow smoothly from one to the next in an unbroken line of prose. That means I have to write transitional passages.

Yesterday at lunch I was trying to get from one scene to the next. The physical action of the scene is minimal: a guy sits in his kitchen, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer, thinking. The previous scene was the guy sitting on the patio outside his kitchen, thinking. Yes, I know: action packed! So all the real action is internal, and most of it is thematic. So I'm moving from a scene that's mostly a comic adventure (the scene about the guy on pain pills I wrote about last week) to a scene that's more serious and having to do with ideas from the very first chapter of the book. I'll need to remind the reader of those images and show them from a different angle in this new scene, to give the images a broader meaning. But first I have to get there.

When I'm writing a chapter, I usually scribble down a short list of things I want the chapter to contain. Sometimes those things are actions, sometimes they're symbols, sometimes they're themes. On my best days, I think of all three classes of narrative element and write them all down. These things are usually not directly related to each other. My lists will look like this:

Davin at the centrifuge

Where's the disk with the data?

Davin searches boss's desk

Close call

Is my sister having an affair?

Everything is dead once you separate it from its mother

I don't necessarily know how I'm going to work all of the symbols/themes in the right-hand column in with the physical actions in the left-hand column. And this is just one scene; usually a chapter of mine will have three scenes, each outlined by a similar vague little list.

Since I just now made up the list above for the sake of this post, I can't tell you how I solved any of those problems because I never did. But I will say that nothing bugs me in quite the same way as does a jarring or clumsy transition. Everything should flow from what came before it, at least in my stories. I can tell you my basic technique for transitioning between elements: I look for something in common in the elements and build a bridge out of it.

That's pretty simple, no? If you are talking about cats and then you want to talk about bananas, you'd do something with, I don't know, maybe the color yellow. Or the idea of something being peeled. Or how old, bruised bananas might look like calico or tortoiseshell cats, maybe. Use that imagination, you know. Given time I could find something actually clever and subtle. The idea is for the newly-introduced narrative elements to seem like they actually are connected to what's already there. The best way to accomplish that is to actually connect them, right?

I wrote about this same thing something like two years ago, but I'm writing about it again because I've just spent the last couple of days staring at the outline for the scene I'm writing and having no idea how I was going to make my way from the scene I'd just written into the scene I wanted to write. I had, for a time, forgotten my own basic technique. So it's always good to remind ourselves about the rudiments of our craft once in a while.


  1. Really lovely post, Scott. I think you already know I'm a huge fan of section breaks, but maybe that's because I like the little graphics Rhemalda puts in my books for them. Butterflies in MONARCH. A lovely little maple leaf in THE BREAKAWAY. I also tend to tell stories in a way where section breaks feel natural for me. I think your writing (from what I've read of yours) lends itself more to smooth transitions.

    Have you ever watched a film and paid close attention to the transitions? I always find that fascinating...and jarring. In books, I don't usually pay much attention to transitions unless they're terribly done.

    I like your idea of doing a list for chapters. I think I might steal that and see if it works for me. I think it might speed up my process a bit!

    1. Michelle, you structure your narratives differently than I do, and it works when you do it. I just don't like it in my own stories.

      In one of A.S. Byatt's novels, the section breaks are marked by little snail shells. Byatt liked them so much she thanked the designer in her acknowledgements.

      And oh, oh, oh it's obvious that I have no idea what to write about here anymore.

    2. Do any of us know what to write about here anymore? Hah. It's a conundrum for me.

  2. I like the list idea too. What will Davin do? Davin likes flowers!

    For me continuity is really important too. In many cases, I use section breaks, but when I do I think a lot about rhythm and making sure the section breaks feel regular--which to me helps with the flow. Keeping the flow is something I think you do really well, Scott. It makes sense that it's so important, and it really gives your stories a particular feel that I like a lot. Over time my own chapters have gotten longer and I think I use fewer section breaks because that continuity is important to feeling immersed in the story, I think.


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