Monday, January 12, 2015

Breaking Up Is Easy (and Good) to Do: Line Breaking Can Positively Affect How Readers Read

Years ago, a dear friend read my MFA thesis, a novel titled, The Greyhound Chronicles. He told me how much he enjoyed seeing my use of line breaks throughout the story and how the breaks affected his read.

My response?

“Uh, thank you.”

You see, I wasn’t consciously doing it as I wrote. I had no idea I was doing it.

After my friend’s comment, I reread the book and saw the breaks and realized it was something I just did while writing, something I learned in studying fiction and poetry and the importance of the word and white space and how readers may be affected by not only what we write, but also how we write it.

Lines breaks are not just for poetry.



We writers of short stories, novels, novellas, articles, essays – we, too, can use line breaks to great effect.

For this post, I’m going to use two examples, both from great reads you’ll find on the site SNAPS 1000 Words, a site that publishes weekly stories of 1000 words that are inspired by photography.

Let’s look at the first graph (first draft) of A Christmas Wrench, by author P. R. Spates:
My mother served my father divorce papers on Christmas Eve. Needless to say, after that Christmas became my least favorite holiday. I didn’t care to put up a tree, hang a stocking and all that bull; I preferred staying busy, and everyone knew that and respected it. Everyone, except Tristan.
I really like this graph; I learn a lot about the narrator (and her family) in a short span of time, and I'm eager to know who this Tristan is.

A very little edit could provide emphasis to the graph (and the story). See below:
My mother served my father divorce papers on Christmas Eve. 
Needless to say, after that Christmas became my least favorite holiday. I didn’t care to put up a tree, hang a stocking and all that bull; I preferred staying busy, and everyone knew that and respected it.

Everyone, except Tristan.
I like this revision for two reasons. One, that first sentence is just very intriguing to me, and the line break and white space help me as a reader to think on that for a moment before moving on. Two, the “Everyone, except Tristan,” separated by the line break, makes Tristan important to me as a reader. I want to learn what role he plays in this story.

In author Jennifer Coissiere’s story, Meeting at the Christmas Tree, we get another example of how to use effective line breaking. Here’s the first graph (first draft) of the story:
This would be the first year without her. Daniel walked through the mall aimlessly. He had no one to buy for. No one in his life to love. Ciara had died two years into their marriage. They hadn’t the chance to produce their own children before she fell ill. Now, Daniel was all alone.

There is a lot of good material in this graph that connects me to Daniel and his life. A little line breaking could open up that connection between reader and Daniel. See below:
This would be the first year without her.
Daniel walked through the mall aimlessly. He had no one to buy for. No one in his life to love. Ciara had died two years into their marriage. They hadn’t the chance to produce their own children before she fell ill. 
Now, Daniel was all alone.
Breaking that first line by itself leaves great impact for the reader. Who will be without her? Who is her?

Having "Now, Daniel was all alone" on its own line also adds impact, but more than that, it connects to the words "all alone" that are in the line because the sentence is "all alone" from the graph before or after it.

Keep in mind this is not something I think about while writing. I’m too busy trying to get words on the page. However, in the rewriting, revising, and editing stages, I do think about how my words read aurally and visually on the page.

The way lines fall in your story can give readers additional space to think and to feel as they read your story.

Do you consider how your story lines break when editing your story?

What techniques do you use to aurally and visually connect your readers to your story?


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment.

18 comments :

  1. Great tips, Shon. I especially like that you pointed out that the break gives the reader a chance to absorb the impact of what they just read. I have always used line breaks and white space, and like you it comes very naturally. Although in rewrites I do find places to use them more effectively. I think my theatre experience gave me some insight on those pauses for dramatic impact. On stage I give it a "beat" before my next line, on paper I use the line break.

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    1. Thank you, Maryann. You know, how you use your theatre experience to give you insight, I think I use both poetry and my love of good television writing.

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  2. My favorite courses taught effective sentence and paragraph structure. Just as scenes are beats, sentences and paragraphs make up the rhythm. White space is a pause. I have a tendency to write long paragraphs, but I've learned to break it up on revision.

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    1. I have a tendency at times to go on and on with large graphs, too, Diana, but there is something about a great break that can add so much.

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  3. I think about line breaks because I'm a lazy reader who likes complex work. And, I work in pr so white space is important--easy on the eyes while driving your point home. Love the article.

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    1. Thank you, Makasha! I would guess that with your work, you definitely understand the importance of white space and visually appealing and meaningful texts.

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  4. Kinda like you, Shon ... it is not a conscious thing ... I write the way I think ... in small bits (or is that bytes?).

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    1. It's BOTH, Christopher. LOL I find that the more I study writing and the more I write, the tighter my thinking and writing becomes.

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  5. I use breaks a bit differently, but I like the idea presented here. Pages filled with text and lacking in white space wear out the eyes much faster than pages with more white space.
    However, using breaks to add emphasis and provide the reader a brief moment to assimilate the emotion makes great sense.

    Excellent post, Shon.

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    1. Thank you so much, Linda!

      I think this post partially came from talks I have with my mass comm students about writing news stories and features and the importance of white space and short graphs and emphasizing important bits.

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  6. I know that white space on a page is important for reader enjoyment so I do exactly what you've described and then do even more in edits.

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    1. I find that I do more in the edits, too, Susan. Thanks for commenting!

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  7. This blog earned a Bean Pat as blog pick of the day. Check it out at http://patbean.wordpress.com

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  8. I tend to write short, snappy sentences too. And a Bean Pat is Pat Bean's version of an award. Hey, Pat (waves from back row)!

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  9. I've never thought about this, but I do it "organically", I think. Part might stem from my dislike of long narrative paragraphs, but I think my subconscious knows that certain things need emphasis. Thanks for explaining why what I've been doing is a good thing. Those moments are few and far between.

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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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