A popular post from September 2011
By Josi Kilpack
Just like in real life, a "break" in a manuscript is a pause, a format-spoken note to your reader's subconscious telling them what to expect next. Using them correctly will give the right signal, and knowing the terms they are called by will help you better communicate to other industry people.
There are actually two types of Line Breaks, or at least two ways I have found them to be used. The definition I'm most familiar with is basically the hard return at the end of a line that starts a new paragraph. This type of break is used all the time in fiction, if we didn't use it we'd have one very long and confusing paragraph. The correct way to use a line break is to signal the end of a paragraph and to signal a new speaker in dialogue. For instance, you wouldn't format dialogue this way:
"But what about the dog? What are we going to do about that @#!*% dog?" her voice was rising in direct proportion to her frustration. "We'll sell it, or give it away. We can do it while the kids are at school and tell them it ran off." "Do you really think they'll fall for it?" "Trust me. I'll take them to ice cream and buy them a new Wii game. I doubt they'll even notice."
Without line breaks we have a hard time following the discussion which should read:
"But what about the dog? What are we going to do about that @#!*% dog?" her voice was rising in direct proportion to her frustration.
"We'll sell it, or give it away. We can do it while the kids are at school and tell them it ran off."
"Do you really think they'll fall for it?"
"Trust me. I'll take them to ice cream and buy them a new Wii game. I doubt they'll even notice."
The other way that the term line break is used is when you have a significant change but not a new chapter--I call these Hard Breaks to keep it clearer in my own head. A significant change is usually point of view or setting and it should be signaled to the reader by centering three asterisks *** between the last line of the previous text and the first line of "change". It is very important that you use three asterisks, not two and not four, and that it's centered. The typesetter uses this as a signal for their formatting so use it correctly in your manuscript. The important part to remember is that hard breaks should only be used for a significant change, which invites the question of whether or not the change should be the start of a new chapter instead of a hard break. I, personally, dislike hard breaks very much. I use them on occasion, but only if the significant change results in too short a chapter. I dislike reading books with lots of *** because though I'm being warned of the change, I question if it was really necessary. Specifically, when you are in one scene and the *** signals jumping between POV characters still in that scene I find it usually wasn't the best choice. I prefer that each scene belong to one POV character, usually the character who has the most to lose in that scene--but that is only my opinion and not an element of craft. Any time you use a hard break, ask yourself if it should be a new chapter. If the answer is no, make sure you really need to make the significant change. If the answer is yes, then be sure to format it correctly with three centered asterisks.
Sometimes, you'll see an extra line between paragraphs. This is typically referred to as a Soft Break but is sometimes called a Section Break as well. Often, the use of soft breaks is a style issue with individual writers and is used to signal a less-significant change. That means that you're in the same POV character, same setting, and the 'focus' of that portion of the plot is also the same. Most often, soft breaks work well to show that time has passed. Whenever it is used, you should question yourself to make sure it's necessary. Because it is such a strong visual cue to the reader, you want to make sure that you use it correctly.
The final break is a Page Break. A page break should only ever be used to start a new chapter, AND even that is questionable. Many editors and agents want the Chapters to be continuous and not break at the end of a page. If you do want to make a page break, don't simply hit the return key until you get to a new page. If you should add anything above those empty returns, they will push those returns down as well, throwing off your alignment. Instead, if using Word on a PC go to the end of the text in that chapter and then push the ctrl key and the enter key at the same time. On a Mac, press the apple key and the enter key located next to the apple key on the right side of the keyboard, not the return key. This will take you to the first line of the next page. You can also add breaks through the 'insert' drop down of the menu, but it's much easier to use the shortcut. Be sure to check submission guidelines to make sure that page breaks for new chapters are acceptable. If they don't say anything, then you can assume it's allowed.
Proper formatting is a cue to your editor that you know what you're doing and anything that increases their confidence in you is a very good thing. Happy Writing!