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Dear Reader: Let’s Talk About the White Space

2

November 21, 2012 by Renee

When I write a scene or a bit of dialogue, Reader, I leave some space in the text just for you. It’s called white space, and it’s my way of allowing you to make the story yours and yours alone. It’s a space where you can take what is written and twist it to fit your point of view, your experiences. I don’t want to think for you, Reader, because I know you’re an intelligent and capable person. I mean, if you weren’t, then why are you reading my book? Am I right? Of course I am.

But the white space contains something else too, something you can’t touch or smell or even see just a little. It contains a piece of me, Reader. A piece that may or may not make its way to you, but it’s still there waiting to be discovered. When you find this in a book, Reader, you are among the lucky few. You’ve found a writer you can trust to craft a story that will take your breath away.

I can see I’ve confused you. That’s my fault, Reader, because sometimes I talk in circles. Let me show you an example:

A man sits alone at a bar. In front of him is a half-empty (or half full, depending on your attitude) bottle of beer, the label torn at the edges. The bottle is warm, and the label is dry. He speaks to no one, although much revelry is occurring around him. A leggy redhead sits to his right. Now and then she glances at him, but he doesn’t notice her, or at least it seems he doesn’t. Another man walks in, and he walks straight toward our loner at the bar. He whispers something to the man. The man hangs his head, sighing heavily and pushes his beer away. He stands and follows the other man out of the bar, but looks back just once at the redhead. She smiles and turns back to her drink.

As a separate scene, this is…not that revealing. But in the white space we see a lot of things that tip us off to unspoken elements in this scene, that imply events prior to this moment, and that might foreshadow something in the next scenes. The label on his bottle shows that although he sits there quietly, something is bothering him, and its dryness combined with the warmth of the bottle implies he’s sat there for a while. The leggy redhead adds some conflict to the scene, but we don’t know how she’s involved unless we read the story. Her smile at the end tells you something, but what? You’ll see later. I left that in that white space little clues, bits of tension and small suggestions that will bring everything into focus in later scenes. This is a simple example, with very basic messages in the white space, but I hope it makes it more clear.

The white space, to put it simply, is the space between the lines. It’s where most of the action and the story take place. When you read a passage and say “I don’t get it.” or “Why didn’t she just write that instead of being all coy and shit?” you kind of annoy me, Reader. It’s not coy I’m trying to be. Writers don’t like to give you everything, Reader. Not the good ones anyway. We like to leave you some wiggle room, and we like to create a bit of tension. Because you know how fickle you are, Reader. You have a life beyond my book that tries to drag your attention away from me. I want to make sure you come back. So I leave a bit of white space to entice you.

The art of creating in that space is, sadly, one we are losing. Our culture is living in a fast-food world where everything is served to you immediately and without effort on your part. But Reader, is that any way to enjoy a book? It takes the magic out of the story and you’re left empty and cold. I don’t want to do that to you, Reader. I don’t want to title my book so it slaps you with the entire plot in five words or less. I don’t want to hit you over the head with descriptions so detailed you are mentally moving the furniture you first imagined in my fictional room to suit what I’ve told you. I don’t want to send you the easy message, the polite message or even the clever one. I want to send you the message that affects you the most intensely. I have no need for clever authorial tricks and sleights of hand that serve no other purpose than to impress you, because you, Reader, have a brain in your head, and I know you want to use it occasionally.

Many writers claim that publishers want a book that ignores those deeper and subtler themes that we describe in the white space, because those themes often cause discomfort on the part of the reader. But you, Reader, I know you like those themes hidden in the white space. I know that discomfort makes you think, and I know you enjoy a bit of thought from time to time. And I know the publishers know this too, so the assumption that we should remove the white space is bullshit tossed about by lazy writers.

 

I know you want a well-written novel that is based on the nuances of craft and plot. You want a story that takes your breath but does so quietly, without telling you said breath should be gone. I want to give you simple lines of just a few words that contain within them enough story and meaning to knock you on your ass. You see, Reader, it is in what is not said, rather than what is said that makes you love my words. It is the silence that echoes between the lines of text that gives a story its power. Taken out of context, the same lines could be perceived as boring, even confusing, but when combined with the characters I bust my ass to create for you, and the text before and after that white space, those lines hold meaning that is scorching in intensity. And you know you enjoy a good scorch now and then, Reader.

Don’t think I create this white space without effort. It is not as simple as not writing certain parts or words. It is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the craft to master. To construct a story in the “void” between the lines of text and to allow the juxtaposition between the text and the white space be the vessel that carries said story is beyond hard. But for you, Reader, I would do almost anything. Not that thing. We discussed this already. But almost anything else I would do to ensure that when you read my book, you have an experience that takes your breath away, or at least makes it short and panty-like.

The trick to creating white space, in case you’re curious, is in word choices and the arrangement of sentences. It is in the description, and how we shape it to each scene. For me personally, I create a scene with all its detail and then I remove those details until I’ve left only what’s necessary to place you. Then I let you, Reader, do the rest.

To do this I must make the sure words I leave behind are heavy with meaning, sometimes containing more than one meaning. I use one meaning to form the word, while the other meaning, or meanings, is what I leave in the white space, hanging expectantly, hoping you’ll see and appreciate its presence, while trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

If you’re lost, Reader, or you have no clue just what the hell I’m talking about, I’ll make it simpler, although I know you’re smarter than that. You could say the white space is like sitting on a dock, listening to the wind as it caresses the water. When you first sit down, you hear the traffic on the road behind you, the boats roaring in the distance, or the geese squawking and honking overhead. But after a time, this obvious noise fades into the background, and you are left with the sound of nature’s breath. A sound you don’t usually hear over the commotion of the rest of the world. That is the white space, and that is what makes a book brilliant.

That is my goal every time I write, Reader. So, let’s not pretend you want it easy. I know you better than that.
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2 thoughts on “Dear Reader: Let’s Talk About the White Space

  1. One of the quickest ways for me to stop reading is when the author tells me everything at once.The second quickest is when the author tells me too little, thinking this will prolong the mystery.It's a fine balance. Let me savor the scene but don't spoon-feed me.

  2. Renee Miller says:

    Great point, Maria. I think that's what makes this so hard for writers to master. Too much and it's annoying. Too little and we're left going "WTF?" I find that most of writing fiction is about keeping a delicate balance. Otherwise, it'd be easy, right?

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Renee

Renee

I like to write stuff. Sometimes it's funny. I've published some novels and short fiction. I also battle an addiction to cake and potato chips, and I sometimes have inappropriate fantasies involving Kevin Spacey.

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