Scene Breaks In Ebooks: Giving Readers A Clue

You fiction writers out there. I bet the majority of you love scene breaks. Dispense with boring transitional passages and maneuvering to shift seamlessly character points of view. Hit a paragraph return or two and start the new scene. I’m sure readers appreciate them, too, seeing as how they don’t have to slog through transitional passages and the writer’s effort to shift POV. (I know I appreciate them)

In printed media scene breaks rarely present a problem–even when the book design doesn’t have actual scene break indicators such as asterisks or graphics. A reader sees an inch of white space on the page and that’s the perfect clue that a shift has occurred. Print book designers can also manipulate the amount of text on a page and lessen the chances that a scene break occurs at the bottom of a page, losing the white space and its visual clue that a new scene has started.

Ebooks don’t work that way. (I’m talking about flowable text and not fixed layout) All too often white space looks like a mistake. There is no way to ensure that the break never occurs at the end of the “page.” If it looks like a mistake or if the scene change seems to happen without any clue, the reader is forced to pause to figure out what is going on. If those stutter-pauses build up it can wreck the reading experience and leave the writer with an unhappy reader who will not buy their next book.

Take a look at the following screen shot. Scene break or mistake?

scenebreak1Kind of hard to tell without a real visual clue, isn’t it? The simplest solution is to use a indicator to make it clear that This Is Not A Formatting Error:

scenebreak2No confusion there.

But, what if the writer doesn’t want scene break indicators? What if asterisks or graphics don’t fit the effect he is going for? A simple and effective method is to drop the first line indent.

scenebreak3There are all sorts of ways to indicate scene breaks. Me, being me, I like the fancy stuff. I often use graphics to add visual interest to the page.


I do a lot of reading on my Kindles and “text-fatigue” can be a problem. Kind of like driving through Kansas where it seems the landscape never changes.  “Oh look! More cornfields! Zzzzzzz…” I can only assume others feel the same way. Using a graphic mixes it up a bit, gives my eyes a slight change of scenery. It doesn’t take much.

The important thing to consider is that ebooks don’t offer the same visual clue opportunities as print books, so it’s up to you to come up with something so your readers stay in the story rather than in a state of confusion.

31 thoughts on “Scene Breaks In Ebooks: Giving Readers A Clue

  1. I very much appreciate scene breaks. For example, that book we were just discussing this morning – great book, awkward scene breaks. Could be annoying if the book wasn’t so good.

  2. Indeed. The formatting was very strange and awkward in that one. It also points out that a story that freakin’ fantastic could be written with crayon on toilet paper and I’d still read it. The rest of us mere mortals can’t get away with it.

  3. I suppose it’s a bit like walking down the street behind two fantastic looking

    Oh never mind, yes you’re right, as usual. Like you I read a lot on my Kindle and iPad and it can get quite tiring on the old eyes and so something that visually kicks they eye, to coin a phrase, into sending a little subliminal message back to the brain helps to keep the interest and the story flowing

    I’M feeling all mushy now

    • One thing I am noticing–and it’s a real pleasure–is that ebook designers are starting to realize that the ebook format is just NOT as visually interesting as a print book. The quality of formatting is getting better overall and the formats are shifting to take better advantage of the medium. The latest updates on my Kindles have reflected that, too. The margins and spacing control is better and the font selections are nicer.

      Now I’m feeling mushy, too.

      • Oh Tom, you’re in trouble now! I agree – my kindle does tire my eyes. I do need something of interest to break the visual monotony.

    • This is the exact reason why I hated SmashWords’s Meatgrinder. I have a nice graphic pinstripe for scene dividers, with a bigger one at chapter ends and a bigger one yet for the end of the book. With circa 160 scenes in one of my books, I blew the 5 MB filesize limit since Word requires each one to be a separate embedded file (unlike an ebook), and I had to reduce the resolution by a very visible 50% to address it.

      Now that I can upload an epub file, problem solved. I feel strongly about good book design…

      • I have chronic trouble with images in Word. I don’t know if it’s the version I use, my computer, or that I’m a dumbass, but they go wonky on me every time and I’ve given up on using them.

        Because of file size limits, I pay close attention to the size of graphical elements. They can bloat a file fast. I don’t particularly care for some of the compromises I have to make, especially considering how beautifully tablets display images, but unfortunately I don’t make the rules.

  4. Hi Jaye:

    I like scene breaks, especially graphical ones, but you already know that. And I like removing the paragraph indent following the scene break.

    But what I still haven’t figured out is how to simulate the way print books handle scene breaks. In a printed book, if the break occurs at a page break, the graphical component is omitted. I would like to be able to create that same situation in an e-book wherein everything is variable. Any ideas?

    • Ebooks are not printed books. What is the “page break” of which you speak? In a reflowable book, displayed on a device that allows the user to change the font size, where do the page breaks occur? Anywhere. The effect you want can not be achieved without giving up everything that makes a reflowable ebook better than a PDF. If you want to slavishly imitate the printed book, just use PDF.

      • William:

        Yes, I know — e-books are not printed books. But they still have the concept — or, at least, the pseudo-concept — of pages, meaning those data that fit onto the screen of the e-reader with the selected font size, margins, et ceteta. There is even the CSS item “page-break-before” (and the related “page-break-after”) that implies the notion that pages exist, even in e-books, although they may be a tad more ephemeral. I am not trying to “lock in” the printed page experience for e-book readers, but to enhance the e-book reading experience.

      • Oh pfft, “Page” breaks work fine. Although, I’m seeing some very interesting things in ebooks lately. Like writers breaking up the books in sections, along the lines of Part I, Part II, etc, instead of chapters (which were always pretty arbitrary anyway). Makes for a much tidier table of contents. I have a book that dispensed with the page breaks altogether. Just did a blank line, a number, another blank line, then started the new chapter. That’s an old pulp paperback trick to save paper, but it makes sense for ebooks especially given how homely orphaned words or lines are. One could still make the nav guide jump from chapter to chapter.

    • Other than using fixed format, no.

      I’ve pretty much given up trying to force features that work so well in print, but don’t want to work properly in digital formats. I’m looking for things where ebooks are superior to print. A lot of that depends on the devices.

  5. Great advice, Jaye. But is it true you can’t drop the indent to indicate a scene break in Smashwords’ Word formatting for ebooks? Not sure, maybe I got that wrong when I read Mark Coker’s How to guide.

    • The Meatgrinder does not like it. It works sometimes, sometimes it doesn’t. Word is too flaky. You can give it a shot, see what happens. Better to submit the EPUB file, then do a generic version in Word for the oddball formats.

    • It’s all about reader comfort, actually, John. The perfect ebook would be one that allows the reader to become so engrossed in the story they don’t think about the format at all.

  6. Jon,

    Here’s how all ebook readers work. You open the book and the reader renders an entire HTML page. That means it starts at the [html] tag, resolves all the links, loads the images, draws the text, and anything else it needs to do until it gets to the closing [/html] tag. If the person who built your ebook was dumb enough to put your whole book as one HTML page, it will render the entire book. This rendering starts at the top left and goes to the bottom right of this virtual page. Generally, the page is rendered at the width of the device’s viewport and with an indeterminate length. It’s really just one long skinny page. When you “move to the next page” on your device, you are always scrolling down this single page until you get the end of the page. Then, the next time you “move to the next page”, you actually move to the next HTML page.

    Those “page-break-before” and “page-break-after” commands aren’t doing what you think they are doing. They just add enough vertical blank space (before or after the marked position) to make the position they are rendered in an even multiple of the device’s height. The appear, in the context of an ereader device or app, to be a “page break”, but they aren’t. What you are asking for is a tag that tells the renderer to calculate whether or not the next element in the DOM (Document Object Model) will render within the current multiple of the device’s height. It could be done, but it won’t be because it makes no sense for a web browser and the ereaders are really just crippled web browsers.


    • Which is another reason why Word makes lousy ebooks. The page break command and the page-break-before don’t always convert when the files are converted. Hence, my ebooks now consist of multiple html pages (separate files for everything I want to start on a new “page”). It doesn’t matter what kind of reader is used, my “pages” break. Let us call it the illusion of pages since “fresh screen” is sort of nonsensical.

      And this all goes back to why using scene break indicators of some sort is necessary. Because blank lines can get lost when the “pages” turn and the poor reader is suddenly cast into a new scene with no idea how she got there.

  7. Dropping the indent looks classy after a scene break–good call! You just need to alter the class attribute on the paragraph after each scene break (can be done pretty fast with a macro). For Thrillers/CrimeNoir, some authors like to all upper case the first three words in the paragraph after the scene break. Since small caps CSS variants are still hit or miss on a lot of platforms, you can uppercase everything selected with CTRL-SHIFT-U in Notepad++. Works well.

    • I have a sneaky-pie version of small-caps (which, by the way, after the latest Kindle updates now works as a font-variant on all three of my Kindles, but I don’t know if it translating into the Kindle app on the iPad *insert eyeroll here*) I made a span class that sets the font size at 80%, then I do an all caps on the first four words and voila. It also works nice within the text for signs, telegrams and other bits that are normally presented as small caps.

    • It (theoretically) isn’t necessary to invent new classes; CSS can handle that:

      p {text-indent: 2em;}
      hr + p {text-indent: 0;}

      Then I use the

    • It (theoretically) isn’t necessary to invent new classes; CSS can handle that:
      p {text-indent: 2em;}
      hr + p {text-indent: 0;}

      Then I use the <hr/> tag for section breaks, formatting so:
      hr {border: none; text-align: center;}
      hr:after {content: "—»·›–•–‹·«—";}

  8. Oh, and to center asterisks for scene breaks. If you look at the screenshot above where I used asterisks, you can see they are crowded near the top of the line–that’s because I didn’t do what I usually do. You can use the low asterisk html entity which is horizontally centered– & lowast ; –but I don’t know if that character is supported across the devices. I use the regular asterisk, but I set a paragraph style with a top margin of 0.5em and a bottom margin of 0.3em, and that gives me a nice wide line with the asterisk sitting relatively centered. I think it looks nice and uncrowded that way.

  9. I love the graphics scene breaks you made for my ebook. 🙂 They even coordinate with the book cover colors. And I think you’re absolutely right about their use in ebooks. Dropping the first line indent is all right, but the graphical scene break is a much better visual clue.

    • Hi Patrice. I make my own using If you want a graphic to match or complement your project, email me at jayewmanus at gmail dot com and I’ll make something for you.

      • Thanks so much, Jaye! I’m just learning some of the finer points of how to do this, and I’ll keep that in mind. I was somewhere else today (online, I mean) and someone was singing your praises… trying to remember who!

  10. Pingback: An Admonition for Self-Publishers. Ahem… | J W Manus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s