By Kym-n-Mark Todd
As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?
Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.
Over the next three posts, we’ll remind fellow writers of the messages they intuitively (and, we hope, intentionally) include in the blank spaces of any good story. It starts at the sentence and paragraph levels, but it builds as we accumulate the sections and chapters of a good tale, and it even plays a role if we decide to expand our universe into multi-book series.
Part 1 – “Half-Halts and Full-Stops”: Why we add the breaks between sentences and paragraphs
As a part of writerly trade, we all know that every conversation – and especially every sequence of constructed dialog – tells as much or more through the subtext rather than the spoken exchanges. On the street, we express important information beyond our words by the way we gesture, inflect tone, screw up our facial muscles. On the page, we do something similar by how we use blank spaces, communicating important information that readers sense at a metatextual level.
It’s kind of like the subtle cues a good rider uses when “talking” to a horse. All our lives, we’ve bred, raised, and trained horses, and we’ve never cared for the term “horse whisperer” – that’s way too loud to characterize what takes place in the conversation between rider and ridden.
If performed correctly, that’s why the art of dressage is boring to watch from the sidelines because nothing seems to happen. There’s no slapping or spurring or yipping; but there’s a constant, subtle conversation occurring nonetheless, one expressed with a two-ounce pressure on the reins, a slight shift in the seat, a quarter-inch drop in the heels. These quiet cues, call “half-halts,” tell the horse important information is about to come, and then one slightly more assertive “statement” signals the next executed movement.
Similarly, the tiny breaks in the forward motion of our writing prepare readers for how to read our words. When we elect to fill our sentences with commas, we’ve slowed the pace, signaled the reader that important little packets of information are arriving, and each needs its own moment. But when our sentences roll on in long and flowing streams of words, we give readers the sense that the gush of ideas should speed up the reading pace to keep in step with our lengthening strides.
Same thing for the short, single-sentence or -phrase paragraph.
It’s that empty space at the end that signals to readers the importance of a single, stand-alone statement. Kinda of like a “full-stop” for a horse, telling the mount to think on what just happened for a moment before continuing. Our paragraph breaks function much the same way.
Of course, the spaces that punctuate breaks between sentences and paragraphs are part writer’s style and part style guide. For example, journalism tends towards very short paragraphs because newspaper articles flow down narrow column widths, and long paragraphs make a column look too gray and uninviting. Book-width pages can pack more in, but a leaf without paragraph breaks still looks daunting, and maybe the reason short, snappy exchanges of dialog can “open up” a page, encouraging readers forward.
Pages dense with type signal readers by the lack of blank space, telling them to take a deep breath, to slow down and pay attention. In this sense, writers carry on conversations with readers even before readers’ eyes focus on words and phrases.
Nothing inherently wrong with dense passages, of course, if that’s the message a writer intends to send. But blank spaces – or their lack – signal readers about what’s ahead and how they should approach the reading.
Less subtle are the larger blocks of blank space separating one section or one chapter from another, where a completely different sort of meaning takes place. Readers recognize these blank spaces say something important, and the audience assumes writers know how to use that space to set up what follows next – the topic of the next posting.
By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State Colorado University's MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.