The Need for Whitespace

An interesting question came up in response to one of my crits a while back. I ran across it today and thought you all might find the answer useful, always remembering that this is my take on the situation.

The question came up because I recommended that a long chapter be broken into scenes. By the end of the chapter, so much had happened that I couldn’t remember it well enough to summarize, which is what I do with scenes in books so the author can tell the intended meaning got across. The author in question didn’t know whether I meant something as simple as whitespace or something major as in added text. I had meant the simple whitespace, but I took the time to explain why something so simple could be crucial, and that’s what I wanted to share.

The question was an easy question to answer, but at the same time a difficult one to explain.

Yes, it sounds silly, but that little bit of whitespace serves the following purpose: it signals the reader that the above piece of action has been completed and so can be burnt into memory as a complete entity. That’s my perception, but it’s based on a lot of observation and even some psychological testing. The tests show that after the tenth word in a sentence (for business reading) the reader starts to fade. If the period and whitespace doesn’t come soon, then the meaning of the beginning may be lost.

Now I’m not suggesting we should only use ten words or less in our sentences, but the same holds true for long paragraphs. The period, the return, and the whitespace between scenes all act as triggers to tell us to absorb the information and consider it because we have the sum total. The trouble with a single scene that covers 3-4 major events is that the early ones start to get cloudy as the reader tries to hold all that info in temporary memory waiting for the signal that they have it all and can commit it to permanent memory.

Does that make any sense at all? As I said, it’s a hodgepodge theory I’ve come up with based on observation and some business writing data, but you can test it easily enough. Find a manuscript (not one of yours) that does good breaks. Then also find one that puts tons into a scene (you can manufacture the last by removing scene breaks before reading if you have to). Then do a scene summary at the end of each text block.

Which was easier to summarize? Which one did you remember all the little details from rather than just the wash?

Hmm, I’m thinking of a workshop exercise now ;). Maybe we should do a roundup workshop once a year with a bunch of little exercises that aren’t large enough in and of themselves, but like this one, encourage us to analyze some aspect that we might otherwise have not noticed.

Yes, I do have workshops on the brain, but the folks taking my one on using an outline to edit are doing such a fabulous job that it’s juiced me up.

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4 Responses to The Need for Whitespace

  1. anonymous says:

    Good point, Margaret. This is true of artwork too. The human eye needs somewhere to rest.

    I’ve always been mindful to break up my paragraphs when I write blog posts, articles, stories, or letters.

    With other people’s work, I know my eyes glaze over if the paragraph goes on too long no matter how interesting the passage.

    The brain doesn’t like to be assaulted.


  2. suelder says:

    In case you hadn’t noticed, your workshop has juiced me up, too. 🙂

    What you’re talking about is called “Chunking” by brain researchers. The brain learns better in discreet chunks. Educators have learned that not only do people learn better in small packets of time and information, they tend to remember the first and last things that they’re told. It’s a different way to look at the importance of the opening scene, for instance.

    Research has shown that a 20 minute lesson is optimal – the standard 45 class session wastes about half the time because kids have tuned out. The fix is to do something about halfway through the class to break things up.

    That’s education – as for reading and writing, I know that I tune out during the 8 page love scenes that Stephanie Laurents writes. Quick scenes with action catch my attention better. Now, If I could write that way….

    Interesting stuff.


  3. marfisk says:

    Guess it’s not just me then :). And so it’s one more aspect to look at when you’re editing. (And yeah, you all that are in my workshop being juiced is WHY I’m juiced :))

    Actually, I just used whitespace in a short story edit two days ago come to think of it.

    A guy thought a girl was coming on to him until she revealed she was there to hire him.

    The original was:

    Her words sunk in and my hand dropped to the table with a thud. Business. I should’ve known.

    To change the emphasis, I made it:

    Her words sunk in and my hand dropped to the table with a thud.

    Business. I should’ve known.

    I almost went with:

    Her words sunk in and my hand dropped to the table with a thud.


    I should’ve known.

    But I decided that was too much whitespace :).

  4. caroleannmoleti says:

    Very true. I have difficulty following too much unbroken action, unless the scene is paced very slowly. I tend to use multiple points of view in longer works, so I use a lot of white space to signal the switch when I want both characters’ perceptions of the same scene, in the same chapter.

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