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.
Part 2 – Why we break to new scenes or new chapters: The blank spaces between narrative sections
Poets know all about blank space. Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and a fine poet in his own “write,” defines poetry as “writing where the right-hand margin matters.” He’s talking, of course, about controlling the empty space in the margins as a way to draw attention to what’s important in the words.
Authors use this strategy as well to signal important transitions by using what are called ellipses or space-jumps – the insertion of extra space or a cluster of asterisks between one block of paragraphs and a consecutive block of paragraphs within a chapter.
The implied contract between writer and reader concerning ellipses usually specifies one or more of the following:
- a change in narrator
- a change in place
- a change in time
We personally love this little manipulation of blank space. It’s purely our own preference, but we use this transition to set up mini-cliffhangers, interrupting key sequences with other subplots designed (we hope) to keep readers from going to bed at night. (By the way, we hate it when our favorite authors do this to us, and you only have to look at the dark circles under our eyes to see how effective we find this technique.)
We also adhere to the other unwritten law of maintaining a single point of view within a section between ellipses. Following this practice helps readers see who’s important within a section, but it also allows for a bit of creative irony.
For example, in Silverville Saga, #1, Little Greed Men, we use ellipses to set up an important misunderstanding between protagonist Bill Noble, a minor con artist who’s come to town, and the local woman who wins his heart, Skippy Price. Billy idealizes her, not knowing she has her own shady past. When we’re in Billy’s head, readers see how he views Skippy; when we shift to Skippy’s head, readers find out more than Billy will ever know. That’s called dramatic irony, and it’s the ellipses that let readers in on important insights neither character finds out.
The blank space between scenes also lets the reader move to new places or different times without having to walk through the implied, mundane progression of the story. And who wants to read – let along write – scenes that are boring? These snap-your-fingers-and-poof transitions accustom readers to accept sudden changes, and even sequences that alter the order of linear events without resorting to cumbersome signal words such as “but before that,” or “much later than that.”
Thinking about transitions brings us to the larger ellipses embedded in most novels called chapter breaks, divisions which hold a lot of implied fine print in the writer-reader contract.
We doubt readers expect all authors to handle chapter breaks the same way (we’re don’t when we wear our reader hats, and we bet you don’t either). Nevertheless, it helps readers sort out what this bigger use of white space means if authors break for new chapters using some internally consistent rationale. It’s akin to expecting a good fantasy world to adhere to internally consistent magic.
We don’t use the same strategy in every novel we write but, unless something alternative seems to fit the story better, we do have a default: plotted episodes. We’ll use a chapter – though sometimes we use a larger division, the so-called “part” – like a playwright or screenwriter builds tension through different acts (with the scenes inside each act divided by ellipses). Of course, we also interlace the scenes within chapters, interrupting one with the next to create those mini-cliffhangers we mentioned above.
Sometimes we’ve let chapters tell cohesive subplots, letting the space between chapters signal that what follows will all deal with the same thread within the story. And other times we’ve allowed chapters to be faithful to just one narrator for each chapter.
So long as the various divisions – those blank spaces between the words – are consistent and help guide readers through the story, it doesn’t really matter what the sections signal. So long as YOU know what it means when you decide to insert extra space.
But does the end of the novel mean the end of the story? The biggest implied space may exist between books – the subject of the third and final part of this series.
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.
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