Time Passages: Chapters, Scenes, and All That Space

There are chapter breaks and then there are … well, I call them hiatus breaks. Some folks call them scene breaks. You know what I’m talking about: you’re reading along and come to some space inserted between one paragraph and the next—smack-dab in the middle of a chapter. Usually it means some time has passed.

(In certain situations one might also call them POV breaks. I’ve been seeing a lot of those lately, due to the ongoing popularity of using multiple viewpoints in fiction. And that’s another post for another time.)

But let’s talk about hiatus breaks as they relate to the passage of time or scenes—the movement of a character through his day. Remember, you don’t have to detail all of it. In fact, I really wish you wouldn’t. Readers only want to know about the interesting bits, you know. And to get us from one interesting bit to the next, you might insert a hiatus break.

Sometimes that’s a good idea and sometimes it’s not.

Don’t bother with a hiatus break if you’ve got a short leap of time—say, a cab ride from the airport to a hotel. Yes, yes, the protagonist arrives at an airport, cabs to the hotel, and then he is in the lobby, waiting impatiently to see the woman he has traveled so far to see … but the interesting part is what’s about to happen in the lobby. We don’t need to know all the logistics.

Richard watched Paris spread out before him as the pilot swung the plane around for landing. It would be nice to visit the Louvre, he thought, see the Eiffel Tower. He hoped he would. But all depended on the sort of reception he’d get in—he glanced at his watch for the tenth time in the last minute—fifty-five minutes.

“Hôtel de Crillon,” he told the taxi driver. “S’il vous plait.” He vaguely remembered putting a fifty-euro note in the driver’s hand. Ten minutes.

The lobby was just as he remembered. The gleaming checkered floor, the gilt everything. Some people said it was beautiful. Seven minutes.

Richard shrugged off his coat. Six minutes, forty-five seconds. He’d been up more than thirty-six hours and was as awake and alert as if he’d had a good night’s sleep. He ran his eyes over the room again. Five minutes. Her sister had promised—

There she was. He stood, holding his coat and his heart. “Charlotte—”

“Richie?”

And she was in his arms.

Get us to that lobby posthaste, and don’t distance us from this action by inserting a hiatus break between airport and hotel lobby, even though they are, technically, different scenes. (It’s possible that the journey is the point, the trials and travails Richard goes through to get to the woman he loves—call it the Cold Mountain Method of Storytelling—but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

No, it’s just not necessary to write every single action the character takes to get to a particular point. Readers will fill in these details without conscious thought. If a mother tells her child to go to his room, we don’t need to be told he’s walking down the hall; you can just pick up the story in the bedroom.

But don’t put a hiatus break there. Seriously, some folks just go crazy with ’em. It’s a scene break, they say, let’s leave a space. But I say this is a manuscript, not a blog, and we don’t need to break the story up into tiiiiiiiny little pieces. I know some folks might disagree with me (and that’s just fine), but I think a lot of hiatus breaks are distracting. We lose the flow. And if a character is just moving from the kitchen to the bedroom, we don’t need a hiatus break. That’s what paragraphs are for, kids.

Now, if your leap in time is longer—he travels, he meets his beloved in the hotel lobby, then we next see the couple two days later, strolling on the Rive Gauche, holding hands (with the entire joyful reunion to be mentioned only in passing, since it doesn’t advance the plot of this story)—then by all means, make use of a hiatus break.

Richard watched Paris spread out before him as the pilot swung the plane around for landing. It would be nice to visit the Louvre, he thought, see the Eiffel Tower again. This reunion had been too long in coming.

When the cab pulled up in front of the familiar green awning of the Hôtel de Lutèce, Richard glanced at his watch. Right on time. Charlotte would be surprised.

* * *

The sun dipped low over the Seine as Richard and Charlotte strolled aimlessly along the Rive Gauche, stopping at every used book stall on the river. Richard figured they’d walked twenty miles in the two days since he’d arrived.

“I love this town,” Charlotte sighed as she tucked her arm into his.

Richard smiled. Tomorrow they’d travel the ten miles or so to Marnes-la-Coquette, the village where they’d lived for ten years. No, eleven, he thought. Eleven.

“I love you more,” he said, and meant it.

“Than Paris?” Charlotte’s eyes twinkled.

“Than anything.”

“Darling.” And she was in his arms.

Always indicate a break in your manuscript, either by typing in asterisks like this …

* * *

(some people use pound signs) or by simply inserting [hiatus break] where you’d like the break to be. This is important for two reasons. First, if a hiatus break falls at the top or bottom of a page, it might go unnoticed by the reader and later by the typesetter. Second, the asterisks leave no doubt in Your Editor’s mind as to your intention. (You’d be surprised how often I see extra lines of space in manuscripts, lines that appear to be, you know, unintentional.)

Someone’s going to ask, How many are too many? Oh, stop. Have you been reading the secret fiction rulebook again?

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: To get us from one interesting bit to the next, you might insert a hiatus break.
Tweet: A lot of hiatus breaks are distracting. We lose the flow. That’s what paragraphs are for.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. By More #WriteTips for Beginners (An Update*) on 17 July, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    […] a year ago I wrote “Time Passages: Chapters, Scenes, and All That Space” which was about whether or not to use a hiatus break. Now author Elizabeth Spann Craig focuses […]