General Question

drdoombot's avatar

What do you call it where there is an extra space or a set of three stars between paragraphs in a book or short story?

Asked by drdoombot (8120points) October 13th, 2010

I’m sure the book readers and writers here will know what I’m talking about.

Some action takes place in a story, and then the story shifts in location or time or whatever. Instead of one line break or carriage return between paragraphs, there will be a few. Sometimes, there will be a set of three stars separating the paragraphs.

I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s used to create a break in the narrative to let the reader know that the next paragraph is not continuing the story from exactly the same place/time/perspective as the previous paragraph. I suppose I’d like to know how it’s referred to in English grammar so I can read up some more on it.

I tried Googling this, but it’s kind of hard to put into terms that can be searched.

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19 Answers

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I don’t know of any other term used to describe it other than “transition.”

Jeruba's avatar

I’d call it a separator. I don’t know the publisher’s technical term.

Often the separator is three asterisks (*)—not “stars.” Sometimes it’s just a double space. When the separator itself is a little design element, it’s called a dingbat. Dingbats have other uses as well.

Incidentally, you don’t need such a break every time there’s a change of scene or shift in time in a narrative. Most of the time the text itself has adequate transitions (“The next day…”). If it reads just fine without the separator and there’s no risk of disorientation, just omit the forced break. It’s annoying to read text that’s loaded with breaks as substitutes for clear narrative transitions.

Foolaholic's avatar

The tool you’re thinking of is an ellipsis, being it’s being used as a narrative device. And @Jeruba is right, it’s a sort of separator. Essentially, it’s used to push a narrative forward to important events, in the same way a comic book narrator might transition by saying, “Later that night…”

Vortico's avatar

There are many cases where I see a fleuron separating a paragraph, but I wouldn’t call three dots or stars a creative decoration. An asterism is probably what you’ve found, as it separates or emphasizes a transition in narration.

Seek's avatar

@Foolaholic An “ellipsis” is the three dots at the end of your “Later that night…”

dkranzberg's avatar

@jeruba is correct. Though publishers use different elements to mark separation. Separation is a break in the storyline or a change in perspective in the narrative that takes place within a chapter.

Jeruba's avatar

No, I don’t think so, @Foolaholic. An ellipsis signifies an omission. The OP is talking about something like this:


Mr. Utterson sighed deeply but said never a word; and the young man presently resumed. “Here is another lesson to say nothing,” said he. “I am ashamed of my long tongue. Let us make a bargain never to refer to this again.”

“With all my heart,” said the lawyer. I shake hands on that, Richard.”

                         *   *   *

That evening Mr. Utterson came home to his bachelor house in sombre spirits and sat down to dinner without relish. It was his custom of a Sunday, when this meal was over, to sit close by the fire, a volume of some dry divinity on his reading desk, until the clock of the neighbouring church rang out the hour of twelve, when he would go soberly and gratefully to bed. On this night however, as soon as the cloth was taken away, he took up a candle and went into his business room. There he opened his safe, took from the most private part of it a document endorsed on the envelope as Dr. Jekyll’s Will and sat down with a clouded brow to study its contents.


The three asterisks there (which would normally be centered on the body text) are the separator. An ellipsis has a different use and function.

xxii's avatar

I believe they are called “space breaks” or “section breaks.”

Kayak8's avatar

It is entirely possible that this technique dates from using—30—in the newspaper world to indicate the end of a story. Check this out or this . The use of # # # or—30—have a long history in the newspaper world and it is entirely possible that the publishing world in general took on this tool as a way to say—this is finished, on to the next bit . . .

Jeruba's avatar

But – 30 – (read that as hyphen thirty hyphen, with no spaces) and ### really mean the end and not just a little interruption.

If I had to guess (and it would be a sheer, outright unsupported guess), I would guess that the use of separators, usually in fiction and typically in novels rather than in short stories, was introduced by some editor in modern times, either to compensate for the fact that the author had not written a decent transition or to replace transitional words in the misguided belief that cutting words is always an improvement.

My husband and I read aloud once a week, both fiction and nonfiction works. It’s my impression that older fiction doesn’t follow this convention but gives you the words you need to recognize intervals and scene shifts. (My example above, taken from R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , doesn’t use a separator; there’s a chapter break where I put the asterisks.) It’s always jarring to me when my husband pauses and says “double space” or “separator.” It takes me right out of the story. When reading aloud used to be the evening’s family entertainment, before television, I don’t believe any reader ever had to announce printing devices in the midst of a story.

Kayak8's avatar

@Jeruba I am just guessing as to the convention of ### or three other elements to denote the end of a section. I have no evidence of anything . . . .

Kayak8's avatar

@Jeruba You are correct to read it as—no space 30 no space . When I typed it into Fluther, with the existing conventions I got —30 as a result . . . so I added the spaces to keep the sense of what I was trying to describe . . . .

Jeruba's avatar

I understood that, @Kayak8. My explanation was for those not familiar with the notation, since this is one of many ways in which fluther’s automatic formatting prohibits us from writing things correctly.

Kayak8's avatar

@Jeruba Too true! I struggled with typing it in a way that made any sense.

Foolaholic's avatar


But aren’t we looking for a mechanic that denotes an omission?

I understand that an ellipsis is not necessarily the tool that we’re looking for, even though the structure can be similar. After several hours of seeking out professors to no avail, I talked to the Director of the Student Writing Center. He pondered for several minutes before saying that the best term he could think of was “suspension point”.
which, ironically, redirects to ‘ellipsis (punctuation)’ on wikipedia

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t think so, @Foolaholic. If all the words that the author wrote are present, there’s no omission. The ellipsis is for when you’re quoting something, but leaving out the part in the middle. For instance, I might quote you above thus: After several hours . . . I talked to the Director of the Student Writing Center.

(Incidentally, there is another use of ellipsis points that I failed to acknowledge, that of speech that trails off, used mainly in writing dialogue. The comic book convention of using it to set a scene is a special case with no counterpart in prose literature.)

Authors must skip over things all the time. That is selectivity in storytelling. We don’t want to read a detailed chronology of every step taken, every gesture, every word, every trip to the bathroom. The author is supposed to give us everything that’s necessary to tell the story and nothing that isn’t, strung together in such a way that we can follow it with comprehension. Sometimes an author uses artificial dividers to signal breaks in the narrative. Those are not omissions.

I think the best person to ask about the technical term for a row of asterisks or other devices used as a divider is either a book designer or someone in the production side of the publishing business, who actually has to use the term, if there is one. The production specialist will be following a design spec that tells how to treat such dividers: when the author puts in a divider, style it as follows.

But I do wonder why it’s so important to @drdoombot to have a label for the separators or dividers in text if book-savvy people don’t talk about them enough to have the term of art on the tips of their tongues.

drdoombot's avatar

It’s actually pretty silly: I’m fixing the formatting/typography on an ePub file, and I wanted to have an appropriate name for the attribute in the CSS property I was using to make those three dots.

Plus, curiosity.

Jeruba's avatar

In that case you can call it anything you want. “Separator” or “break” or “divider” or even “skip” should work just fine.

Next time I meet someone who ought to know, though, I will ask.

drdoombot's avatar

@Jeruba I went with “separator” but I’m interested in finding out whatever you can learn.

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