Monday, August 12, 2013

The Question Buried in a Story's White Space

A few weeks ago, I read a wonderful book, Recipe for a Happy Life by Brenda Janowitz, and I realized something. Every time I landed on white space -- between chapters and scenes -- I rushed to get to the next words in the story. Janowitz was obviously doing something right in how she ended her chapters and scenes. Twists, surprises, questions regarding the character's ability to grow, and disasters were some ways in which she chose to end chapters and scenes.

Other strategies that writers might incorporate into their stories include revelations, questions left unanswered, and a great piece of dialogue that leaves the reader wondering what the dialogue means. In Aaron Elkins' Writer's Digest article, "Three Ways to Know when to End Your Chapters," two other ways to consider ending chapters are breaking chapters where shifts in the story occur (change of place, time, or point of view, for example) and breaking "chapters in the heart of the action." After all, if you break a chapter in the middle of action, the reader will be more compelled to read further to see how the action concludes.

It was in this moment of thinking about the GOOD things Janowitz was doing in her story that I thought about the white space. Of course, white space helps visually. White space can improve legibility and comprehension, increase attention, and can create the right tones (Why Whitespace Matters). It also acts as a separator (11 Reasons Why White Spaces Are Good in Graphic Design), like we often see when separating scenes and chapters in a book.

Aside from the benefits of using white space, I found something else about white space: a question.

What's the question?

Within that white space, readers see that question. They have picked up the book and have voraciously read the first scene. When they come upon that first block of white space, this question appears. And it continues to appear at every scene and chapter break.

It is the writer's responsibility to develop a strong story that will make the reader answer YES to the question, each and every time until the story concludes.

In revisions, as you're making passes for other components you want to rewrite, make a pass for scene endings and a pass for chapter endings. Try on your Reader's Cap, and ask yourself if you'd want to read further based on the endings.

Keep the reader wanting to see what happens next in your story.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. She's the author of mysteries, Death at the Double Inkwell and its sequel, Into the Web, the short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe), and the romantic dramedy novella, Saying No to the Big O. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.


  1. It's about getting readers to turn pages, isn't it? In reality every sentence should keep them hooked. Donald Maass calls this microtension.

    I had a reviewer complain that I ended many chapters at 'cliffhangers' and then shifted to the other POV character. Had I responded, I'd have said ... "Well, Duh!" Another reviewer likened them to commercial breaks, but you could turn the page without having to read an ad.

    Terry's Place

  2. I've learned about writing suspense filled chapter endings from writing for teens on a mobile network. They get a chapter a day on their cellphones. They make it very clear if they're coming back or not so you need to keep them reeled in.

  3. I LOVE that, Terry, about the "commercial breaks." That's often how I try to talk about scene endings. I love (and loathe - lol) when a great scene ending comes just before the commercial, and I'm anxiously anticipating what will happen next.

  4. I can only imagine that teens are very NOW oriented, Lauri, wanting their interest to be kept at every turn.

  5. At a recent conference I attended, it was posited that the amount of dialogue in books has shifted from 20% to 40-60% because audiences want faster reads. Dialogue leaves a lot of white space on the page. Shorter, 10 to 20 page, chapters have the same effect.

  6. That's interesting, Diana. I'm a lover of great dialogue, but I think if a book had 60% dialogue, I would feel like the book was just a bunch of talking heads.

  7. Great post, Shon. Always a challenge to keep your readers reading.
    Lauri, how interesting, writing for a mobile site!

  8. Thanks, Heidi! It's definitely a challenge, and those of us who study the craft know that it's important to find new ways to keep readers on the page.

  9. Terry, you are not alone in using cliffhangers successfully and asking the reader to go with another POV for a bit before getting back to the cliffhanger. John Sanford does this well, as does Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and a few other successful mystery writers. You are in good company. (smile)

    Shon, thanks so much for the reminder about the white space. I learned the value of that from the standpoint of eye appeal when doing PR work and I worked with a graphic designer. I had not thought of in in the terms you outlined here, but that makes perfect sense.

  10. Thanks, Maryann. Before this post, I only thought of white space in regards to stories in technical terms, like readability, legibility, and making the page look NICE. In some of my mass comm classes, especially with designing basic Web sites and creating PR material, we talk about white space a lot, but reading the Janowitz book brought me back to how white space in stories give readers a chance to opt-out of a story and why we as writers need to make sure that doesn't happen.

  11. Another value of white space that works for me: a brief rest for the eyes that gives them a moment before more concentrated focusing on the compelling text.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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