The dinkus – a symbol between story or essay sections – is a source of confusion to many writers. To use, or not to use? What is a dinkus actually for? Read a definition of the dinkus, plus 6 ideas on creative ways to use them:
Scene break markers: When to use a dinkus
- What is a dinkus?
- Help readers navigate
- Shift sense of scale
- Fragment narration
- Give readers breathers
- Emphasize key moments
- Add stylistic or literary effect
What is a dinkus?
A dinkus is a symbol inserted between sections of text in order to make section or scene breaks clear.
Brandon Taylor, in a humorous article about how dinkuses are (over)used (particularly in digital publishing), describes their function:
It’s a way to delineate a section break from a page break, a way to cue the reader that a transition is coming, a movement into something else. A string of three asterisks together is called a dinkus, and they are commonly used in fiction and in nonfiction to carve up larger sections into smaller still sections. They’re a kind of organizational tool that, in print media, is especially useful when dealing with fragmented texts.Brandon Taylor, ‘I Reject Your Asterisks, and Your Dinkus, Too’ (2018), via Literary Hub
There are many other ways to indicate section breaks, of course. Many modern novels forego the three asterisks of the dinkus for a single asterisk, or use an alternative symbol, as Column McCann does in Dancer in the example below:
Here are 6 ideas about how you can use a dinkus to:
1. Help readers navigate
One use of the dinkus, as Daisy Alioto puts it, is ‘navigation’:
Much like the stars, the dinkus is a point of navigation.Daisy Alioto, ‘Ode to the Dinkus’ (2018), The Paris Review
Say, for example, you want to transition abruptly between a character’s memories when they were six years old and present action taking place elsewhere.
Column McCann does this in the example above (although using a symbol in place of a dinkus).
Between the description of a boy sitting on a river cliff watching the trains and waiting for his father to come home when he was six, and the description of a group clearing out a greenhouse, there’s a substantial shift in both time-period and place.
Here, a symbol like the dinkus is like a palate cleanser between courses. It helps the reader clear the lingering impression of the previous section to pay full attention to the complex flavours of the next.
2. Shift sense of scale
Often, you see a dinkus used when a narrative shifts in scale.
One section might show an intimate, detailed conversation between characters.
The next might shift into historical narration about significant background events during the year in which the conversation takes place.
A scene break between these sections would signpost the ‘movement into something else’ Brandon Taylor describes above. We move into a different sense of scale, from the individual, precisely situated scene to the broader, general and historical.
3. Fragment narration
One of the criticisms of using the dinkus to divide sections Taylor makes is that it takes us out of the scene and flow of a piece of writing.
This is particularly the case in digital writing, he says. When we read a piece in a continuous scroll online, telling the difference between page and section breaks is moot, he argues.
Yet you can use a dinkus precisely for this ‘fragmenting’, ‘pulling-us-out-of-the-scene’ effect.
For example, you may want to write a scene where lots is happening in different places, simultaneously.
Cutting between briefer sections with a dinkus (or single asterisk) between each could suggest the tumult and simultaneity of the events described.
4. Give readers breathers
Scene breaks within chapters are useful for creating a breather.
For example, if a passage of narration gives complex concepts, or there’s a non-step action scene but there are still further, separate developments necessary before closing the chapter.
A Reddit user in a discussion about Taylor’s article on the dinkus says they appreciate the ‘mini mental break’ a section break provides:
I don’t use asterisks/dinkus/whatever but with long pieces I appreciate it when it’s there. It’s like a mini mental break. I don’t know why it helps me, but it does.Reddit user Um_Gayeb, in the /r/writing subreddit
5. Emphasize key moments
A scene break is useful for emphasizing key moments.
Say for example, you wish to draw attention to a memorable statement a character makes.
In the below example, Barbara Kingsolver uses a dinkus (though it’s written as three triangle wingdings instead of asterisks) in a way that creates emphasis on the character’s words right before the break.
The protagonist Codi has come to stay with her friend Emelina, and is watching her sons slaughter and prepare a chicken. Codi tells Emelina about her sister Hallie protesting their abuelita (grandmother) slaughtering chickens, and Emelina corrects here, saying it was Codi herself who led the protesting:
Kingsolver uses the dinkus here between scenes after Emelina’s words ‘not everything stays with you all your life’. Her words resonate with other experiences Codi has, such as returning to her hometown at the start ofthe chapter; a hometown in which she feels like an outsider and isn’t particularly close to her father.
The position of the dinkus helps to draw our attention to the way this idea resonates with other elements of Codi’s character arc.
6. Add stylistic or literary effect
When Daisy Alioto spoke to the editor in chief of Electric Literature, Jess Zimmerman, about the dinkus, Zimmerman said:
“I’ve seen people complain, Why is this three-asterisk thing so overused? I think one of the objections is that it feels self-consciously literary. But it is. Things that are tools for us as writers are also things that we can lend to the reader as a way of showing them how to read the piece.Jess Zimmerman, quoted by Daisy Alioto in ‘Ode to the Dinkus’
As Zimmerman says, you can use any of the tools available to you as a writer. It’s up to you whether you use a dinkus to signal scene transitions within chapters, or divide historical and current narrative time.
As long as it aids rather than hinders clarity, the dinkus provides one more way to create interesting structure and juxtapositions.
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