In his reference book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, Noah Lukeman calls the section break “the most subjective of punctuation marks,” noting that “there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it” (p. 160). Some books use a blank space between paragraphs to mark a section break, while others use a dingbat for the same purpose. The section break is such a nebulous punctuation mark, in fact, that I hadn’t even considered it as such until reading Lukeman’s book.
Now, even if you would rather think of section breaks as structural devices rather than punctuation, I think you can agree that their usage is somewhat interesting.
As with any break in the text of a book (paragraph, chapter, etc.), the section break is primarily used to indicate a transition, whether it’s in terms of location, time, or point of view. It’s a way of bridging the gap between two passages which are conceptually close (they are, after all, in the same chapter), but are disconnected enough that moving directly from one to the other would seem jarring. It can also be used to give the reader an extended moment to pause, to reflect on what they’ve just read.
In his discussion of the section break, Lukeman advises writers to practice moderation in using it. He gives two main reasons for this. First, he says that the section break’s brief pause can literally take the reader out of the book:
When considering whether to use a section break, the first thing you must realize is that every time you use one, you give the reader a chance to put your book down. The section break carries nearly the power of a chapter break and also has nearly the visual appeal of one: it creates a nice, too-convenient place for a reader to rest. So first ask yourself if you truly need it. Can the chapter live without it? (p. 167)
Second, he argues that using too many section breaks in a chapter can hamper the reader’s ability to parse the text:
Sometimes one encounters a work where there are four, five, or more section breaks per chapter, and the effect is immediate. It lends the chapter a choppy feel, as if it’s been carved into small parts. As a rule of thumb, there should rarely be more than one or two section breaks per chapter. There is a certain satisfaction for the reader in absorbing himself in fifteen or twenty pages at once; multiple section breaks detract from that…It also makes them work harder, as they’ll have to exert the mental energy of going through multiple beginnings and endings, going through major transitions (whether of time, setting, or viewpoint) several times in a single chapter. (p. 174)
I think it’s fair to say that Lukeman’s advice holds true in most contexts. Most pieces of writing don’t require more than handful of section breaks, and as Brandon Taylor recently observed, writers often use section breaks to “conclude” passages they haven’t fully thought through yet. (Case in point: my “X Fragments on Y” posts, with the Roman numerals in place of dingbats.)
Yet wherever there’s sound advice, there’s also room to ignore it with abandon, and such experiments often have artistically interesting results.
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The first place I remember seeing section breaks used imaginatively was in Chapter 3 of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). If Lukeman would find four section breaks in a chapter suspicious, then he would have Huxley arrested on the spot for what he does there. In my edition of the book, Chapter 3 is 27 pages long, and by my count contains 119 section breaks; that’s an average of more than four such breaks per page. What’s more, the sections are of widely variable length. While the first fragment of text goes on for about four pages, the sections grow progressively shorter, even as short as one line. The result is the print equivalent of a fast-cutting, action movie montage.
At least, it is on a formal level. The content is not nearly so exciting. The bulk of the chapter consists of three conversations that Huxley “intercuts” for his montage: Mustapha Mond’s history lecture, which he delivers to a group of confused students; Lenina’s dressing room chat with her friend Fanny, which centers on their sex lives; and a conversation about Lenina which Bernard Marx, our alleged protagonist, overhears and internally condemns. At no point do these threads actually intersect in the chapter; they merely occur simultaneously and in very rough proximity.
If you’ve ever listened to a radio frequency while at the edge of two station’s ranges, you’ll recognize the feeling of reading this chapter: picking up pieces of different discussions, but in such a way that it’s difficult to piece together a coherent through-line for them. At a certain point, you lose track of which words are coming from which station, and all that noise becomes one song. Such is the case for Chapter 3. If you pay attention to context clues, it’s possible to assign every section to its proper scene, but it’s easier—tempting, even—to just indulge in the implied poetry of all that rapid cutting.
But that very temptation, to just bathe in the pleasures of the rhythm without regard to meaning—that seems to be on Huxley’s mind here.
The previous chapter of Brave New World, Chapter 2, introduces a concept called “hypnopædia,” that is, sleep-teaching. While they are sleeping, children in the conditioning centres “listen” to recordings of lectures and pithy sayings that espouse the values of this society. The constant repetition, heard subconsciously, fundamentally shapes the mind of every person to guarantee their contentment with the status quo. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students, hypnopædia continues until
“…at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions…Suggestions of the State.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis original)
Chapter 3, however, is where the reader first sees the effects of hypnopædia outside the context of the conditioning process, with two characters who flout the norms of society. The first is Lenina, who, contrary to societal expectations of promiscuity, has been exclusively going out with the same coworker for the past four months. Fanny cajoles her into seeing someone else, but Lenina seems passively stubborn until Fanny whips out a hypnopædic proverb: “After all, every one belongs to every one else” (p. 43). Confronted with the inculcated wisdom, Lenina finally relents.
The second is Bernard, the one eternally glum man in London and the target of much ridicule and rumor. His coworkers mock him with exhortations to simply drug his way to happiness, knowing he’ll scoff at their suggestions. “One cubic centimetre is worth ten gloomy sentiments,” one person tells him. “And do remember that a gramme is better than a damn.” (pp. 54-55). Bernard predictably gets riled up, and they leave with a good laugh.
As it happens, Bernard specializes in hypnopædia, and so one might assume that he resists obeying conditioning because he knows how it works. (“Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” [p. 47]) But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bernard doesn’t actually reject the values of his world; he’s simply unhappy because he doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting from them. Once he’s accepted into the higher echelons of society, his rebellious attitude evaporates. Hypnopædia, as it turns out, is hard to escape—which is why, when the verbal montage really kicks into gear, Huxley starts interpolating some of the hypnopædia recordings into the mix.
To give you a taste of what this montage feels like, have a look at page 49:
The rhythm of the short sections becomes so incessant that it takes on the air of a chant, of an indoctrination. It’s an effect I’m not sure could be achieved without heavy use of the section break.
However, Chapter 3 is an outlier in the novel. Nowhere else does Huxley deploy the section break with anywhere near this frequency, and as such the whole chapter can feel like an experiment, even a gimmick. (Huxley’s not even consistent with how he breaks sections in the novel: most chapters just use line-spacing, but Chapters 4-6 split chapters into explicitly labelled parts.) For a more consistent demonstration of the power of section breaks, we’ll need to look elsewhere.
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I recently finished John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a journalistic account how six people lived through the atomic bombing of the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its immediate aftermath, with an extended epilogue added to the 1985 re-printing that catches up on the subjects’ post-bombing lives. As a work of journalism, the fact that Hiroshima would feature more section breaks than is standard is not all that surprising; articles tend to include them at much briefer intervals than novels do. Indeed, Hiroshima was originally supposed to be printed as a series of four articles in The New Yorker before the editors decided to dedicate an entire issue to the work and printed it all at once. To a certain extent, it simply bears the marks of its medium.
However, I would still say Hersey uses the section break more often that Lukeman would ever deem strictly necessary. For example, the third chapter, “Details Are Being Investigated,” has 27 section breaks over the span of 24 pages. That’s not quite a Chapter 3 of Brave New World clip, but it still averages out to more than one per page. And unlike Huxley, Hersey keeps up with this rough pace for the entire length of the book. Why does he do that?
Part of the reason is practical. As in the third chapter of Brave New World, Hiroshima follows multiple groups of people through events that are happening simultaneously. The section breaks quickly tell the reader that the narrative is moving from one part of the city to another, shifting perspectives among its central figures. That extra space between paragraphs gives the reader’s mind a chance to recalibrate, to file one person’s experiences away for the time being and give their full attention the next part of the story.
The first chapter, “A Noiseless Flash,” is methodical in how it uses its section breaks. The first section lists off what each of the survivors the book follows was doing at the moment before the A-bomb exploded, functioning as a dramatis personae. After the first section break, Hersey gives a more detailed account of one of those person’s actions, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s. After another section break, Hersey briefly turns back the clock and does the same for the second survivor, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, and so on for each figure. Everyone’s lives, in Hersey’s telling, are allowed to play out in parallel.
At least, they are at first, and this is where Hersey’s book demonstrates the real versatility of the section break. As the book progresses, and the various survivors start to cross paths and interact with each other, the strictly-divided sections give way to something more patchwork, more like verbal montage. Granted, the sections are not nearly as short as in Huxley’s case, but the narrative of the bombing’s aftermath does move quickly from setpiece to setpiece.
The subtle change in how the section break is applied underscores the dramatic change in how the central characters experience the world. Before the atomic bomb drops, there is something resembling order in Hiroshima. Yes, the city is struggling through the waning days of the war, with air raid sirens constantly warning of impending destruction. But in a way, everyone involved has adjusted to that status quo; their daily rhythms are unorthodox, but they’re still present. The atomic bomb, however, obliterates them. Confusion reigns over the city, so much so that one could conceivably turn Hersey’s journalism into a mystery story: What on earth just happened?
Hersey’s section breaks resemble montage in another sense: the juxtaposition of one section with another allows for commentary. We see this in Huxley, of course, what with those hypnopædic proverbs, but Hersey’s usage, though less frequent, is even more blunt. In “The Aftermath,” the epilogue written forty years later, Hersey writes about Rev. Tanimoto’s efforts as a peace activist, and inserts into that narrative brief snippets of world affairs, none of which are promising. Consider the following sequence from page 139, after President Harry Truman refuses to acknowledge a petition from the peace-oriented United World Federalists:
Hersey does this repeatedly in the home stretch: Rev. Tanimoto’s peace advocacy, confronted with incessant nuclear proliferation. Blunt? Yes. But a perfect example of how a section break is not just functional, but meaningful.
Finally, Hersey’s use of section breaks actually makes me question one of the premises of Lukeman’s discussion: that something has gone wrong if the reader feels like putting the book down mid-chapter. Perhaps an author might think that there are situations where doing so is perfectly fine.
The subject matter of Hiroshima is, to put it mildly, heavy. It’s the sort of book that inspires one to spend some time staring blankly at a wall, reflecting on the fallen state of humanity. One moment in particular got to me: a short section, which I shall quote in full, in which Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, attempts to comfort a girl rescued from a river following the bombing.
The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead. (p. 45)
Readers may well find themselves overwhelmed with anger or despair or some other powerful emotion here. The section break serves as a humane exit point. “Do you need some time to process what you just read?” this use of the section break asks. “Well, here’s a fine spot to leave off. Come back when you’re ready.”
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What do you think? Are there other books that you think use section breaks in creative or unique ways? Are there other punctuation marks or literary techniques that you think deserve more scrutiny? Share your thoughts down in the comment section.
If you want more examples of how to break the rules of writing productively, check out this older piece of mine: “‘The Sin of the Apple’: Writing from the POV of an Object”
And, as always, thank you for reading!