Scene Break vs. Chapter Break: How Do You Know?

Photo credit: erink_photography on Flickr
Once upon a time someone asked me about scene breaks and chapter breaks and it took me forever to write this post because…well, I wasn’t really sure where to start. 

Scene breaks and chapter breaks are two sides of the same coin—they’re both used to end or pause a scene, whether temporarily for dramatic effect or to switch POVs, or to move on to a new scene. The execution itself is similar: a line to end/pause the scene and some kind of symbol and spacing to represent the actual break from the scene.

But despite those similarities, scene breaks and chapter breaks are used to accomplish fairly different effects.

I like to think of scene breaks as soft breaks—they’re a pause within a chapter to end one scene and flow into the next without ending the chapter. These are mostly used when you’re not ready to end the chapter, whether for POV reasons (say, in a dual-POV novel) or because the end of the scene isn’t quite dramatic enough, or whatever other reason.

Chapter breaks, on the other hand, are hard breaks, because they tend to be spots that readers are more likely to take a break from reading (though your goal is to make them not want to). Sometimes they end a scene, sometimes they stop part-way through a scene at a point that’s shocking, some sort of mini-cliffhanger, or resonates or is dramatic for some other reason. I’ve already posted about making the most of your chapter endings, so I won’t go into that here, but the idea is to end on a note that makes your reader want to read more.

For me, how I decide between scene breaks and chapter breaks varies slightly depending on the WIP. For a dual-POV MS, I tend to use more scene breaks because I like to switch POVs with chapter breaks rather than scene breaks, so if the next scene is in the same character’s POV, I need a really good reason to end the chapter. Then again, if that particular MS has shorter chapters, I’ll be more inclined to use a chapter break rather than a scene break. For a single POV MS, I try to reserve chapter breaks for particularly dramatic/intense/haunting moments, and I use scene breaks when I want one scene to flow easily into another.

In the end, whether you use a scene or chapter break will be entirely up to what feels right to you for that particular scene in that particular manuscript. But it helps to keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish when deciding between the two.

So that’s how I decide between scene and chapter breaks—now I want to hear from you. How do you decide between the two?

Twitter-sized bites: 
Writer @Ava_Jae calls scene breaks “soft breaks” & chapter breaks “hard breaks.” What do you think? (Click to tweet)  
Should you use a scene break or chapter break for that scene? Writer @Ava_Jae breaks it down. (Click to tweet)


Jen Donohue said...

I tend to do it intuitively. Sometimes it has to do with page count (if I realize a chapter has gone for more than 10 pages, say, when others have been more like 7), but mostly it's a gut feeling I go with. That, and sometimes my chapters end when my "writing period" has come to a close, so I try to keep in mind logical stopping points if a reader has to, say, go to work.

RoweMatthew said...

I decide where I want my chapters to end before I start writing. That way I'm constantly building up to those mini-cliffhangers and everything else is a scene break.

Ava Jae said...

I agree that a lot of it is intuitive—I tend not to think about it much when I'm first drafting. It's when I'm editing when I begin to make sure that I stopped in the right place, whether it's a scene or chapter break. Thanks for sharing, Jen!

Ava Jae said...

I find that I try to plan ahead, but oftentimes I end chapters in different spots than I'd originally planned. That being said, I'm a fan of the mini-cliffhanger in my writing, too. :)

RoweMatthew said...

I can't not cliff hang. I like the wind in my toes as I dangle on high

Robin Red said...


Ava Jae said...

Ha ha ha. Agreeeed.

Ava Jae said...


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