A few weeks ago at my local library I came across a novel I’d been wanting to read. I didn’t have time for another book, but I took it home anyway.
The book was a paperback copy of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (New York: Back Bay Books, 2018), winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s the kind of book I can’t resist: it’s about a writer.
Fortunately, Less is a relatively short novel—261 pages, broken into eight chapters. Each chapter is further divided into an average of a dozen sections that range in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs over several pages.
All of which adds up to about a hundred easy-to-read sections.
So I found myself reading a section and then looking ahead to see how long the next section might be, ignoring my phone, reading another section—and so on. I finished the book in three or four days of happy, stolen moments.
I was glad for all those sections.
The Anatomy of a Break
Section breaks in Less are signaled primarily by a blank line space between paragraphs.
In other books, this space might be marked with an ornament. The classic choice is the fleuron—in particular, a leaf-shaped glyph that predates Shakespeare and looks like this: ❧ (defined as a floral heart in Unicode). Other common ornaments include asterisks, short rules (or long dashes), and dots. Whatever the choice, the ornaments are generally centered left to right.
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In Less, as in most books, the paragraph immediately following a break begins flush left—like the paragraphs in this post. But in published books, most new paragraphs get a first-line paragraph indent, so the absence of such an indent works as an additional signal.
FOR GOOD MEASURE, some books will additionally signal a new section with a font change, like the small caps at the beginning of this paragraph.
But Less uses a minimalist approach to section breaks. This works well, except between pages.
Space Breaks in Print
In a printed book, page breaks are random but fixed. No one knows exactly where the text will break across pages until the final, typeset version of the book is produced (usually in a page-layout program like Adobe InDesign). But once the book is ready for the printer, the page breaks stay where they are.
That means that the book designer can treat page breaks as an exception.
In Less, those spaced section breaks present a conundrum. When such a break occurs across two pages, the reader is likely to miss it. That’s because the flush-left section opener might read as a continuation of the previous paragraph (especially if the final line of that paragraph ends at or near the right margin).
The book designer for Less solved this problem in the print version by placing three centered dots in the otherwise blank line that landed at the bottom or top of a page whenever a section break coincided with a page break.
It looks like this:
In Less, these dots occur about a dozen times in the book. Sometimes they’re at the bottom of a page; other times they are at the top. Once, they appear at both the top and the bottom of the same page.
What do readers think when they encounter these dots, which happen to occur only four times in the first hundred pages?
Maybe readers understand the dots for what they are. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they assume (wrongly) that the dots signal a more significant break than the others. Or maybe they don’t notice them at all.
E-Books: Go with the Flow
Whatever readers might think, the e-book will be different. Most e-books feature reflowable text, and readers can choose a preferred font size. Page breaks on-screen will depend not only on the font size but also on the device and app used to read the book. In other words, they’re not fixed.
The e-book version of Less marks section breaks with extra line space followed by a flush-left paragraph, as in print. (For this post, I looked at the Amazon Kindle version.)
But it doesn’t feature the dots. That’s because current e-book standards don’t allow for optional elements that would be generated only across page breaks, and only when certain conditions have been met.
Nor is a new Lessian section signaled in the e-book by a font change like small caps.
So when, as will happen from time to time, a section break coincides with a page break, it might easily be missed. (Nor can you count on extra line space at the bottom of the page as a signal; in the Kindle app, such space may appear on any page, as the app adjusts the flow of text to accommodate screen dimensions and font sizes.)
Fortunately, the breaks in Less aren’t all that important. Convenient, yes; significant, no.
I was sure—even before this investigation—that the unnumbered and unnamed section breaks in Less are common in newer works. (Such breaks don’t seem to be a feature of older works, maybe because people had more uninterrupted time for both writing and reading.) But I wanted to test my hunch.
I wasn’t at the library anymore, so I did a search on Amazon for popular literary fiction and chose the first ten titles. Then, using the “look inside” feature (supplemented by a trip to a bookstore), I made some comparisons and took some notes.
Among the ten books in my list, all but two included the kind of section breaks that we’ve been discussing. So I compared how these are handled in the Amazon Kindle edition versus print (paperback or hardcover).
As you will see, I ended up finding a wide range of practices. I hope the following summary will be helpful to anyone involved in preparing a book for publication, including self-publishing authors.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)
Kindle sections are marked by a row of three centered dots followed by a flush-left paragraph whose first significant clause or phrase appears in small caps—THE SHACK SAT BACK from the palmettos, . . . ; MA DIDN’T COME BACK that day. . . . ; THE NEXT MORNING, . . . ; etc.
Print sections are marked in the same way, except the three centered dots occur only where a section break coincides with a page break.
The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy (Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2019)
Kindle and print sections are marked with a centered ornament (in the horticultural style of the fleuron described above but resembling a clover leaf between two stems) followed by a flush-left paragraph.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (New York: Harper, 2019)
Kindle sections come in two varieties: (a) three centered asterisks followed by a flush-left paragraph, and (b) a blank line space followed by a flush-left paragraph, the first letter of which is in bold: Like this.
Print sections are signaled in a slightly different way: (a) with three centered asterisks followed by a flush-left paragraph, the first few words of which are set in small caps (not used for the e-book), and (b) by a blank line space followed by a flush-left paragraph, the first letter of which is not bold (unlike in the e-book—but none of these breaks seem to coincide with page breaks in the print edition).
In both formats, the two types of breaks presumably have different meanings.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986; New York: Anchor Books, 1998)
Kindle sections are marked by a blank line space followed by a flush-left paragraph.
Print sections are marked in the same way, except three spaced asterisks appear where section breaks coincide with page breaks.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2019)
Kindle sections are marked by a centered em dash followed by a flush-left paragraph.
Print sections are marked by a blank line space followed by a flush-left paragraph, but a centered 3-em dash appears wherever a section break coincides with a page break.
The Many Colours of Us by Rachel Burton (London: HQ Digital, 2017)
Kindle sections are marked with a single centered asterisk followed by a paragraph that begins with a regular first-line paragraph indent—a very minimalist approach that seems to suit this digital-first book.
(As of this writing, The Many Colours of Us is not available in print.)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017)
Kindle sections are marked with a blank line space followed by a flush-left paragraph.
Print sections feature three centered asterisks where a section break coincides with a page break.
One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker (Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2019)
In the Kindle and print versions, each of the book’s thirteen numbered chapters is divided into two to four sections, each of which carries a title—but there aren’t any breaks of the kind that we’ve seen in the other books.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (New York: Random House, 2019)
Kindle sections are marked in one of two ways: (a) by a centered ⸭ ornament (defined by Unicode as a five-dot mark), followed by a flush-left paragraph, or (b) by a centered em dash followed by a flush-left paragraph.
Print sections are marked either (a) by the same centered ornament as in the Kindle edition (also followed by a flush-left paragraph), or (b) by a blank line space followed by flush-paragraph or, across a page break, by a centered 2-em dash followed by a flush-left paragraph.
The five-dot ornament apparently signals a stronger break than the blank line or dash.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni (Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2018)
As might be expected in a book that consists of 130 numbered sections across seven parts, there are no additional breaks in Kindle or print.
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So, lots of breaks—not always as many as in Less, but they do seem to be common in today’s fiction.
Two of the books in my list—Patchett’s The Dutch House and Strout’s Olive, Again—each feature two different types of section breaks.
The oldest book in my list—Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was clearly ahead of its time—features the same minimalist approach to section breaks found in Less. So does Lee’s Pachinko. Cross-page section breaks are marked in print, but in the e-book, readers are trusted to spot them wherever they occur.
A sensible compromise to the minimalist approach—to mark only those sections that occur at page breaks in print while marking all section breaks in the e-book—can be found in Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and in Atwood’s The Testaments. It’s also used in Strout for one of the two break types.
Only Valpy’s The Dressmaker’s Gift treats section breaks in the same way in the print and e-book versions—which just so happens to be the recommendation in CMOS 1.58.
If you’re a writer, be sure to mark section breaks with asterisks in your manuscript—regardless of how they are intended to appear when published. Extra line space alone may get overlooked during the editing process (see CMOS 2.8).
Finally, keep in mind that unless you self-publish, the treatments described above are normally up to the book designer—but you may be able to signal a preference at the beginning of the design process.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.