Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Your eyes are glazing over, you’re reading each word but not internalizing anything. But, I love this book! You think to yourself. So why can’t I focus?
Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you had something else on your mind. Maybe you were too tired to concentrate. Or maybe you were experiencing a classic case of the missing scene break. Scene breaks are one of those elements of a novel that often go unnoticed because, when they do their job, they make the story flow seamlessly, keep a steady pace, and switch flawlessly between points of view. But when they’re mishandled or missing altogether, the story suffers.
What is a scene break?
In practical terms, a scene break is just that—a break between two related scenes. But in stylistic terms, there are multiple reasons to use a scene break, each with its own affect on the narrative. A scene break can be used to signal a shift in time or point of view, to propel a story forward and build tension, or to skip unnecessary or mundane moments between scenes.
When to use a scene break
You’ve seen now a few different occasions to use a scene break, but the power of a scene break is that it also has narrative effect. Let’s look at a few examples, all taken from V. E. Schwab’s thrilling tale of two anti-hero arch-nemeses, Vicious.
Here’s what you need to know: Victor and Eli are college roommates who undertake a series of dangerous experiments after researching EOs (ExtraOrdinaries)—people who claim to have supernatural abilities after a Near Death Experience coupled with high levels of adrenaline. Their question is simple: Under the right circumstances, can a person develop extraordinary powers? But of course, the results are much more complex and completely unexpected, with consequences that span a decade and endanger others along the way.
This is one of those books you will stay up all night reading, partly because of its awesome story concept; but, from a craft perspective, also because of Schwab’s masterful use of scene breaks that keep you on the edge of your seat, turning the pages. Let’s see how she does it.
1. Use a scene break to signal a shift in time or point of view
Unless a story takes place within a concentrated amount of time—a day or a few hours—there will naturally need to be breaks in the timeline. Apart from using a chapter break to accomplish this, a scene break is a great tool to skip over blocks of time.
“I’m not discounting any of those,” said Eli, deflating a little as he guided the car into their parking lot …
“And it’s a thesis,” Eli went on. “I’m trying to find a scientific explanation for the EO phenomena. It’s not like I’m actually trying to create one.”
Victor’s mouth twitched, and then it twisted into a smile.
“Because it’s suicide,” said Eli in between mouthfuls of sandwich.
They were sitting in LIDS … Only the Italian eatery, the comfort food kitchen, and the café were open.
“Well, yes, necessarily,” Victor said, sipping a coffee. “But if it worked …”
Clearly, this scene break does help us skip over some time, since we’ve gone from walking in the parking lot to eating in the cafeteria, but what else does this break accomplish? By skipping time, but still keeping the conversation flowing seamlessly, we can tell they’re in a discussion so intense and pivotal it’s uninterrupted by time and space. If Schwab had dragged this out instead of using a break, as Victor and Eli walked across campus or had a class in between, the effect would be spoiled. The tension and immediacy would be lost.
What pivotal moments in your story might be heightened by cutting out some time?You can use a scene break to signal a shift in time or point of view.Click To Tweet
2. Use a scene break to switch point of view
A change in point of view can be jarring when not handled well. To avoid head-hopping, you need a break of some kind. If a chapter break isn’t ideal, use a scene break. Here’s how it’s done in Vicious.
“I like that we’re finally different,” said Sydney, fighting back a shiver. “I don’t want to be you.”
Silence fell between the sisters. A silence full of shifting pieces.
“I don’t need you to be me,” said Serena at last. “But I need you to be brave. I need you to be strong.”
Sydney squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m not afraid.”
Serena stood in the garage with her finger on the trigger, the barrel resting between Sydney’s eyes, and froze. The girl on the other side of the gun was and was not her sister … This Sydney was alive in a way the other had never been.
So, yes, we’re switching from one character’s point of view to another’s, but what else does this break achieve? Tension. Conflict. Scope. We can now see this incredibly tense scene from both sides. Even without knowing why Serena is holding a gun to her younger sister’s head, you can understand the bravery and fear tearing at Sydney, the doubt holding Serena’s finger at bay.
Which of your most pivotal scenes could benefit from a wider view? Could this technique help you show readers the complex emotions boiling beneath the surface, heightening the tensions of the moment?You can use a scene break to switch point of view.Click To Tweet
3. Use a scene break to propel the story forward and build tension
You’re working on a pivotal scene. You’ve tinkered with the wording, the sentence structure, the thematic elements, the weather. But it still isn’t right. If you’re struggling to build the tension and keep driving the story forward, try using a scene break. Watch how Schwab uses this break at just the right moment to ramp up the tension.
Angie was back at the machine. Their eyes met, and for an instant everything else vanished—the lab and the humming machines and the existence of EOs and Eli and the years since Victor and Angie had shared a milkshake—and he was just happy to have her looking at him. Seeing him.
And then she closed her eyes, and turned the dial a single click, and the only thing Victor could think of was the pain.
Victor fell back against the table in a cold sweat.
He couldn’t breathe.
He gasped, expecting a pause, a moment to recover. Expecting Angie to change her mind, to stop, to give up.
What’s left out in the tiny pause of this scene break? The infinite moment when that electric current is running through Victor’s body. So, we’ve skipped over maybe some exposition to describe the feeling. But we haven’t lost anything have we? We’ve gained this sense of tension and expectation. There’s a before and after moment on either side of this break that make the reader feel, Wait! I have to know what happened!You can use a scene break to propel the story forward and build tension.Click To Tweet
4. Use a scene break to skip unnecessary or mundane moments
Whether it’s just another morning commute or getting dressed for bed or taking an uneventful jog in the park, there are moments you need to jump over instead of ambling through. A scene break is a great tool to help you and your readers get from Point A to Point B without having to slog through the boring bits. Let’s watch Schwab in action.
“But what’s in the bag?”
They reached the car, and Eli tossed the item in question into the backseat.
“Everything we need.” Eli’s smile spread. “Well. Everything but the ice.”
In fact, “everything we need” amounted to a dozen epinephrine pens, more commonly known as EpiPens, and twice as many one-use warming pads, the kind hunters keep in their boots … half a dozen bags of ice leaned against the sink, small rivers of cold condensation wetting the floor.
Maybe you’ve already guessed, but this is the scene leading up to one of Eli and Victor’s experiments. Aren’t we all eager to just skip over that car ride and get down to business? Schwab indulges us and lets us jump right to the action. Check to see if your most important scenes make the best use of pacing. If they drag on too long or have mundane details that aren’t essential, try a scene break to get from Point A to Point B.You can use a scene break to skip unnecessary or mundane moments.Click To Tweet
Have our two anti-heroes given you some ideas about how to use scene breaks to your advantage? I hope so. The scene break is an excellent multi-purpose tool in your writer’s toolkit. When used strategically, it can work wonders for a struggling scene. Give it a try!
How has a scene break come to the rescue in your writing? What other ingenious ways have you used scene breaks to liven up your story?