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.

Boast Post: This Time It’s All About Me

What’s that old saying about the shoemaker’s kids? They go barefoot? Something like that. Yeah, it’s been something like that for me. A few months ago my former publisher reverted rights back to me for six of my books. I’ve been so busy doing projects for others, my personal projects kept being pushed onto the back burner.

To make it extra fun, all these books were written prior to 1995. I was able to recover two off disks. One I had as a relatively clean manuscript (as an experiment I ran the pages through my home scanner–take it from me, unless you have buns of steel to tolerate the hours you’ll spend in your chair, this is not the most fun method of file recovery). The others had to be scanned from the actual books. After all that scanning, they still have to be run through an OCR program and cleaned up.

I started with the easiest projects (ha ha), the two files I had on disk. They were final drafts, and required editing. With much help from Julia Barrett and Marina Bridges we managed to eliminate most of my writing quirks, beef up some weak plot points, and even trimmed it quite a bit. I hired the talented Jayne Smith to design the covers.

It’s a risk not putting people on the covers of romance novels, but I love the look and I’m willing to risk it. I also made sure to put “romantic suspense” on the cover so I could include it in the title to nudge the search engines a bit.

Need I say, I had fun with formatting.

Small caps!

I recently read a Ben Aaronovitch novel, Whispers Underground. Kudos to publisher, Del Rey, for releasing a very good ebook edition. They care and this reader appreciates it. At the beginnings of chapters they used small caps. It’s a small touch, but it looks classy.

That’s a screen shot from my Kindle keyboard. Notice the first line. There are many, many ways to start a chapter with a touch to offset the text. The simplest is to not indent the paragraph. Then there are drop caps, bolding, italicizing, or graphics to give it an “illuminated” look. I happen to like small caps.

The Kindle doesn’t actually support small caps. If you’re using html and use the font-variant, nothing happens. What I did was create a span class with small-caps as the variant, but then set the font-size at 80% (I’ll change that for EPUB, which I believe does support small-caps). I left the first letter on the line at normal size and reduced the size of the next few words which I had capitalized. I used a span class as opposed to a paragraph style in the hopes that I wouldn’t trigger the Amazon bug that shrinks the font in older Kindles. I had a friend test the book on his older Kindle, and no teeny tiny font. Yay, team!

The code for this particular sample looked like this:

What that did was make a paragraph with no ident, left the first letter normal sized and reduced the size of the next three words.

I also did something that opened a discussion with a friend. I placed the tables of contents in the backs of the books. He thinks they should go in the front of the book. I think that’s true in non-fiction where readers peruse the toc for information about what the book contains. In fiction it’s merely a navigation guide since in most cases it’s just a list of Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc. Also, if a novel has a large number of chapters then the potential buyer who downloads a sample could end up with pages of toc and very little story to sample.

So what do you all think? Table of contents in the front or in the back?

If you want to check out my latest formatting masterpiece the books are up on Amazon right now. (I’ll be uploading them to other places soon, but first I have some other jobs to do–you know, shoes…)

The Mirror Images series, Dark Reflections and Light Embraced are available on Amazon.

Pioneers in Ebook Design: Monica Pierce

Thank you, Jaye, for letting me add my two cents on the matter of ebook formatting. I appreciate your advocacy of self-publishing as well as your ardent promotion of any writers’ ability to create and market their own material.

(No, thank you, Monica. It’s a pleasure to see what you’ve done. Thank you for sharing your process and the gorgeous results.)


As Jaye has so often pointed out, we (writers and publishers) need to put as much design thought into what comes after an ebook’s cover as we do that cover itself. After all, 99% of the reader’s ebook experience involves what lies beneath. Yet too few writers and publishers seem to pay attention to formatting, and even fewer (writers, in this case) bother to learn the basic markup language (HTML and CSS) that goes into making ebooks. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Hell, it’s not even high school biology. Uploading your Word file into a conversion program and hoping for the best is asking for a questionable and, in some cases, impossible reading experience. It may seem a small thing, but all those strange page breaks, screwed up quotation marks, and odd characters add up to annoyed readers who want to throw your virtual book across the virtual room.

In comments, Jaye mentioned that she’d like to see how some self-published authors have addressed various design issues and decisions. I volunteered to be the first.

After reading Guido Henkel’s excellent blog series on ebook formatting, I tackled the process, making some specific design decisions in order to give the readers the best formatted, but least intrusive, reading experience I could possibly create. So here’s how and why I did what I did with the guts of Girl Under Glass.


I write in Word and did the initial manuscript clean up (removing extra spaces and marking up italics) with that program. Then I imported the manuscript into Textmate to strip out all the Word gobbledegook and used HTML to mark up paragraph breaks, single and double quotation marks and apostrophes, special characters, and breaks. Lastly, I set up styles using CSS for the paragraphs and centering, as well as the title, copyright, dedication, glossary, phrases, and about pages. Centering the images (section and chapter titles and scene breaks) is controlled with p and span tags.

I’m doing a back page promo swap with another indie author and will be inserting a Recommended Reads page with her ad at the end of the book, as well as a link in the TOC. (Thanks, Jaye, I stole that idea from you.)

Honestly, I think I can probably clean up my CSS a little, but I got tired of playing whack-a-mole with divs, spans, and p tags.


This entire page is an image. I wanted to use my cover font, Proxima Nova, for my inside title, section titles, chapter titles, and additional end material, but ebooks allow for a very limited font selection. So my husband, Scott, (a former web and graphics designer) was roped into volunteered to design all of these graphics. But I wanted something more than just the title on this page, so he added the design element. Since the premise behind this book revolves around my main character, Rachel’s, unique genome, he used a diagram of an unraveled RNA segment. It’s a strange, but compelling image.


There are three sections in this book. Again, we repeated the use of Proxima Nova and linked the sections to the title with the RNA graphic. It stops the reader and signals the transition while also, I hope, recalling the reader to the title with a subtle nudge.


The large RNA graphic was too much for the chapter, so we decided to use a more compact image. This, too, is RNA, but the view is looking down inside the tightly wound strand. I didn’t define the font or font size in my CSS for the pages. Many readers don’t play with the settings on their ereaders, but I saw no reason to aggravate those who do. The standard font is clean and readable. I set my paragraph bottom margins at 0.7em and the indent at 1em. That’s a totally personal decision; I don’t like a larger indent for this book because that feels more like a traditional design. This book is dystopian and set in the near future, so I made some spacing decisions that were a little non-traditional without being annoying. (I hope.)


Using asterisks for my scene breaks seemed like a cop-out after putting the graphics into the title, sections, and chapters, so Scott gave me a different RNA strand graphic. Ultimately, however, I decided it was too distracting to have a third design element, so I opted to use the circular RNA image to indicate the breaks, as well. (This is how it appears on the Kindle vs. the Kindle Fire for the previous images.)


The circular RNA image was repeated, again, on the supplemental pages. (This is the Kindle Touch. Note the different font. That’s a preset for the Touch, apparently. I don’t own one, so if you do, I’d love to know if that’s what your screen looks like.)


Finally, the Glossary (Kindle) and Ohnenrai Phrases (Kindle Touch). This book has a smattering of an alien language, and I wanted those readers who were interested to be able to find definitions. At some point, I’ll go back and link the main text to the glossary. In the meantime, this works, but I don’t love it.

Ohnenrai Phrases/Kindle Touch

The entries are separated with HTML breaks, and both the glossary and the phrases have their own divs. But I’m sure they can be better. I’d also like to include a guide to pronunciation for each word, so the glossary will look more like a dictionary. Any suggestions?

Regarding title and author identification at the top of each page. I mulled over various approaches to adding this data but, ultimately, decided it offered too much potential for problems down the road. New ereaders are already picking up that metadata and inserting it, and I couldn’t think of an elegant way to do it without creating repetitive information on the screen for the newer Kindles and the iPad.

Again, thank you, Jaye, for allowing me to talk about my formatting. Girl Under Glass isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a pretty good start for a newbie author with only a little HTML and CSS knowledge going into the project. Now that I have a template and a taste for the process, I’ll be looking for even more ways to design a lovely reading experience. I welcome any feedback on what I can do to make this book (and others) even better.

Monica Enderle Pierce is a self-publishing newbie whose first novel, Girl Under Glass, was a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semi-finalist. She writes dystopian romantic suspense and romantic gothic fantasy novels.

Beautiful, Monica! I’ve heard people discount the power of the little details, but as someone who reads a lot of ebooks–sometimes four or five a week–I know from my own experience that when I open a new book and if the first image, the first page has a nice look, a nice feel, my attitude about the book undergoes a slight change. It’s more attractive, it looks more important, it has weight–ergo, I’m cued in that is a better book. It automatically ramps down my inner-critic and puts me in a more receptive mood. Kind of like getting into the passenger seat of a clean, fresh-smelling luxury car. The journey is the journey, getting me from point A to point B, but the ride is nicer and I know from the get-go that I don’t have to worry about ketchup stains on my shoes from fast-food litter on the floor.

As for the glossary and pronunciation guide–love it! I was just discussing with a friend about glossaries and such, and the desirability of putting links in text (I don’t mind that in non-fiction, but I’m sure the underlining would bug the crap out of me in fiction). My initial idea (untried, just a thought) would be to link the glossary terms back to their first appearances in the text. No underlines in the text itself, that way, but those who are interested can see the term in context. It would be up to the writer, then, to make sure the readers know there is a glossary and/or pronunciation guide by creating a custom Table of Contents, and perhaps even a small note or foreword saying something along the lines of “Hey, folks, if you want to know how to pronounce Pzrryewrwtz, there is a pronunciation guide. Click here and then click on the words to take you back to the story.” (actually, something better than that, but you know what I mean) I know this reader appreciates tips and tricks for navigation.

(Just an odd thought about pricing. I read a lot, so I appreciate the lower priced books. Five or six bucks is my preferred price point. I’ve noticed something about myself–when I’m shopping for books, I always check the samples. There is always a moment of “Is this worth the price?” Quite often, how the sample LOOKS is what tips me over the edge and directs my finger to 1-click and Buy. Like I said, just a thought.)