Very specific fiction formatting question
June 12, 2019 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Hello! Under what circumstances does one use "#" between paragraphs? Is it only if there is a skip in time?

I was using paragraph breaks and "#" to indicate a character's slipping frou consciousness to unconsciousness, and I was told that was not proper. Is that advice correct?

posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (15 answers total)
Best answer: As far as I know it's only a proofreading mark, so it's used to indicate that some space should be inserted. The hash mark wouldn't normally appear in the published text.

So I'd agree with the person who told you it isn't 'proper', assuming them mean not normally done.
posted by pipeski at 7:30 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would use three asterisks, centered on their own line, to indicate a scene break in a manuscript. It sounds like that’s the circumstance you’re describing.

But really, slipping into and out of a conscious train-of-thought is weird enough into itself that there are probably a number of less formal ways you could style it that would help underscore the confused nature of the protagonist’s perspective.
posted by mumkin at 7:50 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In the past, if you were double-spacing the lines in a manuscript on a typewriter, you would use an additional line (a double double-space, basically) between paragraphs, whether for a time break or some other reason.

If that happened at the bottom of a page, where the first line after the space break would be at the top of the next page, you would use a hash mark (#) to indicate the space break that occurred at the bottom of the page to the person who might eventually be typesetting that manuscript. Otherwise, they might visually assume there is no break there. Even in the past, though, it would have been uncommon to use a hash mark in every section break in a manuscript.

In today's world, that hash mark is unnecessary because you would be providing the typesetter with a digital source file. Therefore, (a) pagination is determined by settings (borders, font size, etc.), not fixed in place by ink on paper, and (b) the typesetter isn't relying on visually looking at a physical manuscript to make those determinations. In other words, the app takes care of that.

So, in short, you don't need the hash mark. It's neither proper or improper as much as it is a relic of the past. If you include the hashmark in your manuscript and it makes it to publication, whether your decisions about the hashmark -- and things like font, spacing, etc. -- are included in the final product is going to be up to the production designer of the book/periodical/website anyway, not you, the author ... unless for some reason you believe the typographical decisions are critical to the meaning of the text and force the issue with the editor.
posted by gritter at 7:51 AM on June 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: There is no rule. You can do whatever you want, always keeping in mind that it may not have the intended effect on your audience. I think asterisks are more easily understood in this context than a hashtag, but it's up to you.
posted by praemunire at 7:51 AM on June 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm with praemunire here. Authors from Lewis Carroll to William Faulkner to James Joyce to Mark Danielewski have used and abused conventions ranging from grammar to capitalization to paragraph and chapter structure to typography to communicate, and there's no "right way" to do these things except inasmuch as you ideally have a particular effect you want to have on your reader (which may or may not be full comprehension).Obviously, if you're going for a telegraphic and straightforward narrative of events (whether third person or first person), the best way to say what you mean is in words. If you want to be elliptical, then, as people suggested above, maybe include a line of three asterisks between paragraphs instead (that indicates not necessarily a change of consciousness, but some sort of change of scene or perspective).

If you want a road less trodden, then a lot of white space (at least 2.5 times an average paragraph break, say) is a typographical abnormality which can jar your reader; note that if it spans pages or is in an ebook it may be invisible, though.

And to return to your original question, an octothorp on a line all by itself is fine too, as long as you don't mind some of your readers being utterly perplexed or even thinking it's a typo of some sort; I certainly don't know it as any sort of "standard" symbol in print, so don't use it if you're banking on that being common knowledge. Use it consistently, and eventually some of your readers will get it and embrace your usage. Others won't, but if you're being adventurous and unconventional that's the risk you take.
posted by jackbishop at 8:24 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I use it to indicate a change in scene, not necessarily a passage in time. If the scene ends it's okay to use it to indicate a character passing out.

However, I do think that anything can work so long as it's done deliberately and with clear intention (see: Danielewski.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2019

Best answer: The issue (imho) with using # is that, in our social-media-drenched society, the # would probably be (confusingly) seen as meaning "hashtag" rather than indicating any sort of change in scene or consciousness.

As a designer, I would suggest you consider switching the entire "unconscious" section to a completely different typeface. This would more forcefully indicate to the reader that a serious change has occurred.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:10 AM on June 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a professional copy editor. My short answer is that if this is part of your artistic expression and authorial voice, use it. That can totally be separated from the idea of "right vs. wrong."

It is used, many times, to indicate a scene break. Meaning, there's been passage of time, or we're changing POV, or something else. Traditionally, this would only be printed (usually replaced by something prettier than # or ***) in a hard-copy book if the scene break fell at the top or bottom of a page. Nowadays with so much e-first pubbing, it's frequently included at all times, because you have no way of knowing where that scene break is going to fall, because each reader may be seeing the book differently -- someone's reading on a Kindle with a large font, someone's reading on a phone with a small font, etc.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:11 AM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When reading one of these for Recording for the Blind (that is, either the double space paragraph break, three asterisks, or any characters that break within a chapter like that), we'd call it a "major ellipses." I think that goes with the idea that an ellipsis (...) represents skipping over something, and a major ellipses like this represents a larger skip--usually in time, but that's what passing in and out of consciousness would do. I don't know that anyone else calls it that.

I've also seen it used to change viewpoint characters or scenes within a chapter. How you format it (#, * * *, or just extra space) is really pretty irrelevant in my reading and editing experience, unless you're working with a specific style guide.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:04 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might have gotten pushback just because that glyph means “add a space” to proofreaders and typographers. An asterisk (or three) or bullet on a line by itself is more standard (and as stated above is often replaced by something fancier in publication).
posted by rikschell at 1:18 PM on June 12, 2019

Best answer: I'm also a professional copy editor. Of course, if this is fiction, nothing is incorrect and you can do whatever you want, but I would never see that symbol and think of it as someone slipping in and out of consciousness. I agree with Thorzdad that a change of typeface would probably work better. I would suggest italics for being less conscious.
posted by FencingGal at 1:26 PM on June 12, 2019

Best answer: I read a lot of fiction, and I don't think I've ever seen that usage. I would find it very jarring and artificial.

As a designer, I would suggest you consider switching the entire "unconscious" section to a completely different typeface. This would more forcefully indicate to the reader that a serious change has occurred.

Yes. I've seen italics used this way, and it is quickly assimilated into the reading flow.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:53 AM on June 13, 2019

Best answer: Also, the hashmark being an editing mark may be a good reason to forgo using it. When I was a tech writer, one of the places I worked had rebranding inflicted on it, including adding asterisks to the company and product names. The spell-checker of the document software we used rejected every instance of that, requiring us to manually accept each one, evry time we ran spellcheck. I can envision the hashmark doing the same.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:03 AM on June 13, 2019

(On reflection, I had assumed you were submitting this mss to an editor. If you're formatting this for self-publication, without anyone else's involvement, that's a very different kettle of fish. It might also be helpful to know the context of the advice you received re: the propriety of using a hash.)
posted by mumkin at 4:43 PM on June 13, 2019

Response by poster: THANK YOU
posted by angrycat at 1:40 AM on June 15, 2019

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