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Should a scene break always be put in place when there is change in location, times, and dates?


I have read many books where the character is in one place at a certain time and, without a scene break being utilised, they are all of a sudden in a different place at a different time, but it works smoothly and doesn't given the readers whiplash. Is it always necessary to use scene breaks when the character transitions to a different place, location, and time?

For example, a character is in the principal's office in the morning, then, without using a scene break, they're in the cafeteria at lunch time. Or, when a character is at home, say, in the evening, then events lead them to a different location, time and date, but a scene break also hasn't been used in this transition.

I hope this makes sense. It's just, I've read books where the author has used a scene break for transitions, and I've also read books where there are so many transitions in one scene, but it runs very smoothly.

Any help would be appreciated.

Edit: Referring to scene breaks, upon doing some research I see that there are two types of scene breaks; a soft scene break (an extra space between the paragraphs) and a hard scene break (the use of astericks or lines). I suppose what I am trying to figure out is when either of these scene breaks should be utilised. Are there any rules for this when creating a chapter? Or is it simply up to the writer to figure out how they would structure their chapter, even with all these technicalities.

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4 answers


A scene is a small dramatic arc within a story. Usually scenes take place in a single place and time, though that is not always the case. Usually it is clear that one scene has ended and another has begun, thought that is not always the case either. Where there is a possibility that it may not be clear that one scene (one small dramatic arc) has ended, then inserting a scene break is a good idea. And if it is possible in one place, then it probably makes sense to insert scene breaks between all the scenes in the book. And since you are probably not the best judge of when it is obvious, you might be well advised to insert scene breaks between scenes all the time.

Note that the difference between what you call hard and soft scene breaks is a typographical one, not a literary one. In a manuscript, you would be well advised to use asterisks and not rely on a blank line being noticed by the typesetter. After all, a blank line falling at the end of a page will not be seen at all.

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You can do it either way--a formal scene break or through the use of transitioning language.

I stewed hard over this because like you, I had seen scenes defined as a change in location, time, or characters. When you get down into the weeds with that kind of definition, you can start slicing and dicing and end up with hundreds of 'scenes' in a book.

But that's getting silly, to add a scene break when someone changes rooms or whatever. I'd say if you can meld two thusly-defined 'scenes' like that with simple joining language, try it and see if it is smooth to your ear.

Here's a very bad example:

Jane and June were whispering about Jillian's bad hair cut. Jane shushed June when Jillian walked over. "You're such meanies," Jillian said. "I hate you." And as Jane thought about it, both then and later, she realized Jillian had a point. In fact, that evening she asked her dad what he thought. "Yes," he said, "gossiping is a bad habit." Unbeknownst to Jane, June was having the identical conversation across town with her mom. But June's mom said, "Oh there are far worse things in the world to worry about."

There's lots of people and places and times in that paragraph. But it still makes sense more or less without scene breaks (although it is quickly constructed and poorly written overall.)

So, I think the answer is that a scene break belongs where it helps to craft a better story. Like a chapter break. A scene break causes a little 'break' in the reader's mind. More than a period or paragraph break, less than a chapter break.

It's one of your tools, and you are free to use it to create your art.

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It is permissible, as long as it is obvious to the reader that is what happened.

That said, personally, I put in a scene break, which I can be certain is obvious to the reader. Just three asterisks (or dashes, your preference) centered on a line. I can't understand why any writer would be averse to using them.

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Your question seems to be a style issue. Personally I cannot recall ever using a scene break within a novel.

More often than not the end of a scene is also the end of a chapter. Where the end of a scene is not the end of a chapter I simply insert a blank line between paragraphs.

I use a blank line where the next scene involves a change in time or location. I also use a blank line where narrative commentary interrupts the story.

Scene breaks intercept flow and diffuse tension. Once a writer has established character and locations the breaks are counter-productive.

Imagine a scenario where "Jane" has escaped her evil captors and is racing toward St Pancras train station in a stolen car. (Character 1, Location 1). "The Bad Guys (Hans & Uri)" are chasing her. They are a few minutes behind in a van using the tracker in her phone to locate her. (Characters 2, Location 2). "Detective Inspector Bob Smith" is thrashing the shit out his police car trying to get to the bad guys before they get to Jane. (Character 3, Location 3). "D.I. Smith" is being directed by his partner "Pam" who is at head office watching the pursuit via satellite. (Character 4, Location 4).

Once we've established the characters and locations we can run all the locations through a single scene. (Ignore the line spaces. I don't get how formatting works on this site).

Speed cameras flashed as Jane hurtled along Baker Street. "Move! Asshole!" She bashed the horn and gave a taxi driver the finger.

Uri's eyes remained focused on his phone. "She went left. . . No. Your other left! Shit for brains!"

Jane powered along the bus lane, mounted the kerb, and drove the wrong way along Bristol Mews.

Pam took the headset from the analyst. "Bob, it's Pam. She appears to be heading towards Kings Cross. Take Gower St . . ."

Hans stood on the brakes. The black Mercedes Sprinter screeched to a halt. "Where'd she go?"

  • Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this. For me, if I try to see the scene: Inserting scene-breaks for every switch would be like fading to black each time.
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