Friday, July 5, 2019

How Do You Create Section Breaks--the White Space Pause--in Your Chapters or the Whole Book?

A great question, simple but important, this came my way from a former student who is working on the first draft of her memoir.  When you construct chapters, when you look at the book as a whole, you do have the option to give the reader small moments of pause, usually created with a few paragraph returns and white space (in chapters) or a couple of blank pages (in the larger book).  

What are the rules around doing this?  How often, and why?

Let's talk chapter breaks first.  

In nonfiction it's easy to know when to introduce white space breaks in a chapter:  when you have a subhead to introduce a new section, you insert a white space break.  In fiction and memoir, it's a little harder, more intuitive, but there are some guidelines, thankfully:

1.  When you shift from frontstory to backstory, especially a backstory segment in scene (with dialogue and specific time and place), it's often helpful to the reader to get notice of the time change with a section break.

2.  When a certain amount of time passes in your frontstory (you move to the next morning or a week later), it's helpful to use a section break.

Here's a good post on the topic from author Jill Williamson. (If the link doesn't work, search for her name and "section break.")

In the whole book, you have lots of options.  At first glance it seems serendipitous.  My student noticed that many books have three parts, each separated with a section break.  Part 1, 2, and 3.  Is three a good pattern to follow?  Only if they serve the story.  Here are some ways to decide, for your book.

Are you using multiple narrators (point of view characters) who have large sections of story?  A classic example is A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, which uses three narrators and has a section for each, or similarly, The Hours, by Michael Cunningham.  When the narrator's section ends, there's a natural break that designated by a blank page or two.

Do you switch eras?  Some historical novels jump time by decade, so the reader needs a heads-up.  It's given with the section break or a new "part" announced.

I played with these larger breaks when I had both narrator and time jumps.  I found it useful in early drafts to orient myself--I could also work on each part (there were three!) by itself and feel some accomplishment as I did it.  But as the book evolved into final revision, I ended up smoothing out the jumps, so I got rid of the breaks.  

If you're contemplating breaks, consider this:  it's a natural place for the reader to pause, but just as natural for her or him not to pick up the book again.  Do you want that?  If you go for breaks, make sure you end one on a very tense note, so your reader will have to read on.

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