craft teaching

Craft Strategy: White Space

I suspect my undergraduate writing students will have no difficulty recognizing at least one craft strategy in my recently published essay, “Reckoning.” I teach it early and often. Perhaps it’s my trademark. I’m talking about white space. I like to use it around a single short line to make the line stand out and demand attention. It’s a strategic move that stuck with me after several semesters of poetry in college, even as I migrated to prose. To be clear, I’m not talking about dialogue, which might look set off by white space because of grammar conventions. I’m talking about an original line of my thoughts that I deliberately place by itself. I know your eyes go there.

It works in prose, too.

I suspect my undergraduate writing students will have no difficulty recognizing at least one craft strategy in my recently published essay, “Reckoning.”  I teach it early and often.

Perhaps it’s my trademark.

I’m talking about white space. I like to use it around a single short line to make the line stand out and demand attention. It’s a strategic move that stuck with me after several semesters of poetry in college, even as I migrated to prose. To be clear, I’m not talking about dialogue, which might look set off by white space because of grammar conventions. I’m talking about an original line of my thoughts that I deliberately place by itself.

I know your eyes go there.

You can’t ignore a little line screaming from vast emptiness, if it’s done in moderation. Students sometimes get carried away, convinced that every sentence they write is important enough to deserve the spotlight. They’re wrong. If you use it too often, it doesn’t draw your eyes. It no longer signals something special.

“How much is too much?” my eager-to-please students always ask. There are no hard rules here, but I’ve seen the strategy produce a really powerful effect when used just once in an essay or short story. Or the “rule of three” is almost always effective. I’ve seen rare occasions where a single repeated line offset by itself can work when it appears more frequently than that. So it depends — on the line, the context, the distance from the previous one liner, the reasons for employing the strategy, the tone of the piece, the audience, etc. Writing is an art, after all, not science, not prescriptive.

How do you know what line is special enough to merit white space? I try to reserve this strategy for big moments of revelation. In “Reckoning,” which is in many ways a story of my pursuit of truths, I let the big truths I found sit by themselves in white space. My mom is never coming back, I lied to her on her deathbed, and nothing I do or say can change things. These might not be the biggest revelations to all readers, but my goal was to render what my experience of loss was. Those lines mark my personal “oh shit” moments, the points where my understandings, and often my feelings, changed in some way.

I don’t necessarily use it the exact same way in every piece of text (I mentioned this is a trademark of mine, remember). Sometimes I choose to set something off with white space because I want to draw attention to a line that marks a change, as described above for “Reckoning.” Sometimes I want to give readers a chance to catch their breath after I’ve loaded a lot on them. Or I want to interrupt a lot of text with a moment of silence. Sometimes I want readers to stop and think about what I just said. Or some combination of these reasons. The point is that I don’t use white space willy-nilly. I can justify it.

A writer friend who frequently reads my works-in-progress calls my one-liners surrounded by white space my “gut punch” lines. In her peripheral vision, she can tell when one is coming on the page and braces herself for it, “like the telltale music in a horror film,” she says. I have no idea if that’s a compliment or not, or if readers who are less familiar with my writing have that same feeling of anticipation, but I’m not likely to break my habit regardless. I think it’s become part of me, like some writers are known for their metaphors, some write rich imagery, some have a knack for choosing perfect verbs…

I punch readers in the gut with white space.

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