Book Design: 8 Solutions to the Text Break Dilemma

by | Jun 30, 2010

Text breaks—those places where the author wants to insert a space, but not a new chapter or section—lots of authors use them, and they often create problems for book layout. There are many ways the text break can be used:

  • to give the reader a rest
  • to change scene in the middle of a chapter
  • to insert a story line outside the current narrative
  • to flashback to an earlier event or
  • to supply explanation or backstory to the main action.

The list could go on and on. Novelists seem to use text breaks more than other writers. They are probably common in memoir. But when the book gets to the book designer there are both problems and opportunities.

Designing for Text Breaks

The problems come from the enforced space on the page. As designers, we usually want to square the bottoms of all the pages, and your book will look a lot neater that way. But what if a text break comes right at the bottom of the page?

You have no choice but to leave the space there to signify the text break. And what about the text break that occurs at the top of the page? It would make for a very odd-looking book page to have a big space at the top of the type column.

How do designers get around these problems? By seizing the opportunity the text break presents. By putting just one character in the space of the text break, you can accomplish any number of things,

  • give a graphic touch to relieve the gray columns of type
  • add an element that affects the “color” of the type page, and therefore the overall reading experience
  • amplify or illustrate a theme from the text with pictographic elements

8 Solutions to the Text Break Affair

The best way to see the effects of different treatments for text breaks is to take a look at them visually. Let’s have a look. (This text is from the newly-published The Andrew Street Mob by Brian Marais, Marais Media International.)

book design

1. Space—Here’s your naked space, restful perhaps, but so wrong for making good-looking pages, for all the reasons discussed above.

book design

2. Bullet—A single bullet can be very effective in breaking the space and adding a spot of color.

book design

3. Rules—Using a decorative rule is an effective way to make a clean break between sections. This dotted rule adds a character to the page that’s all its own.

book design

4. Decorative ornament—Here a decorative leaf from the Zapfino font strikes a graceful note with the Adobe Garamond Pro body text.

book design typography

5. Printer’s ornament—Throughout the history of printing type designers have created typographic ornaments that printers use to add decorative touches when appropriate. We can draw on these historical forms for text breaks, too. This ornament is from the Adobe Wood Type font.

book design typography

6. Photograph—A detail of a photograph, grayed out to keep it from overpowering the text, might be effective for the right book.

book design typography

7. Type characters—Five hundred years before the emoticon designers used the common type characters in fanciful arrangements that were purely decorative. These characters are from the Open Type Adobe Garamond Pro.

book design typography

8. Pictographs—If done properly, this is one of my favorites. It has to be the right book, and just the right drawing, but I’ve used these in books about the outdoors, camping, dogs, and RV travel.

In each case, the design has to stay true to the mission that’s been set for the book. And each of these samples shows how a page of text can be influenced by the smallest addition, especially combined with white space that throws it into greater prominence.

But the text break is also a fun opportunity for you as a book designer to add something to the page, or choose to stay back quietly while the author tells her story.

Takeaway: Experiment with different ways to format text breaks and see how each influences the page differently.


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  1. Daniel Davis

    If you have a section break at the bottom of a page, is there a standard regarding whether your symbol (bullet, ornament, whatever) goes at the bottom of the page or the top of the next one? If either is acceptable, is it OK to have both within the same book, or does it have to be consistent?

  2. Bob Golden

    Here’s a question I thought might have already been asked and am surprised it hasn’t been: If paragraph indents are being used, should the paragraph after the break be flush left or indented? I feel it looks like an error. Others feel it conforms to the dictum that you should not use both an indent and a paragraph space.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Bob, as you can see from the samples in the post, after a text break we usually don’t indent the first paragraph because, as you point out, it would be redundant. More on this subject here: Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style.

  3. Chris Maiocca

    Question: Should the text break be “sandwiched.” In other words, how would you visually represent the end of the pause? In the case of the dog, would there be a dog also at the end of the pause?

    • Joel Friedlander


      Good question. No, there’s no need to run the ornament (in this case, the dog) twice, because we’re just trying to create a break in the text. If you wanted to use a device like this to set off an extract or a pull-quote, then it would be appropriate—but not required—to do both, simply to make it very apparent where the extra material starts and ends.

  4. Asia

    Thank you so much for this post. We are just getting into this for our latest book and this gave us some great ideas.

  5. NT

    Is it okay to have a glyph appear at the very top of the page? It looks a bit awkward to my eye, but there seems to be no way around it if you want your pages squared off.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good question, NT. Consistency is what’s important. If you’re using glyphs in other places in the book to indicate spacing or a break in the text, then yes they should also be used at the top of the page. We use them all the time. They won’t look funny or odd.

  6. Michael E. Newton

    For my next book, I am looking to use three (circular) bullets to separate between sections. I’ve seen it in other books of my genre (history) and it does well. The key is getting the spacing and size right.

    Another thing some people do is to change the first word or first few words of the new section into all caps or “small caps.” I think that this adds a little more flavor (I prefer small caps).

  7. Mary Elaine Kiener

    Thanks for some great ideas – I am writing a book for caregivers that builds on my own experiences with helping others to “die well”.
    I was just having a discussion today about how to “create a safe space” at the end of the stories I’m sharing that will allow the reader to sit a moment within their own situations with similar themes – before going into a more intellectual mode.

  8. Michelle Waggoner

    Very informative! I have been wondering how to appropriately handle section breaks in short stories. This has helped clarify some things for me, although, I do have a question regarding matters of consistency. I tend to use ornaments when such breaks appear at either the top or bottom of pages. However, I am uncertain how exactly to address section breaks that appear within the middle a the page—or when a single page may contain multiple section breaks. For consistency, should these other breaks within the page also be ornamented? Or alternatively, is it an acceptable practice to leave an empty space for section breaks that appear within a page, while only placing ornaments on the section breaks that happen at the top or bottom?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michelle, that’s an interesting question. Unless you have different kinds of breaks in the text, it’s preferable to treat them all the same. You shouldn’t have a space at the top of a page, either, and that’s one of the reasons to include a small ornament or even just a centered bullet character to show there’s a break.

  9. Tony Hawkins

    The bullet does best for me and possibly No. 7. The others don’t, for me, fit the type of story. Extraordinary how much emotion/thought can be attached to little curly things and cute doggies. The bullet is mysterious, tantalising and intimidating. Also restful. Could I really be saying all this nonsense, said Colonel Starchwicket. Well, apparently, after wading through seas of words, it seems to really make a difference.

  10. Jenna

    When I designed Alan Watt’s book The 90-Day Novel
    ( ), we inserted an icon of a hand writing for certain exercises. We liked it so much that I made a jpeg image of the hand to include in the ebook version as well. The icon made an interesting, yet appropriate break for when the reader is supposed to be writing based on the prompt in preparation for writing their book. Using these text breaks really can be incredibly useful.

    Thanks for the post!


    • Joel Friedlander

      Jenna, that’s lovely and it sounds appropriate, too. Too bad they don’t have a “look inside” on the Amazon listing, I would have liked to see it. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Will Entrekin

    I always liked the asterisk. Which I suppose is approximately equivalent to the bullet you mentioned. But I like the bullets to be in the story instead of breaking it up!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, shoot, Will, the asterisk has a long history and was the favorite embellishment of all of us who learned to type on actual typewriters. But they still have their place.

  12. Nakia Laushaul

    Thanks for the tips, really good ideas! I’m only recently getting my feet wet in book layout and design.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nakia, hope they help. Really the options for text breaks are pretty unlimited. Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Deb Dorchak

    Oh man! Great stuff here. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to use some of these *smacks head*. Thanks, Joel.



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