Elizabeth: Don’t Forget the White Space

I read two different mysteries recently, by two different authors.  One had an initial murder that drove the story, interesting characters, and a complex, convoluted plot.  The other had an initial murder that drove the story, interesting characters, and a complex, convoluted plot.

One story had me reaching out for the next in the series, while the other made me recall the laundry that awaited and the dishes that needed to be done.

Wait, what?

As I sorted, folded, washed, and dried, I tried to figure out what made one story work and the other miss the mark.  I was interested in both, I felt invested with the characters in both, but with one, I didn’t want the story to end and with the other I couldn’t wait to finish and return the book the the library.

The answer, I think, is in the white space.

Perhaps I should explain.

At the recent RWA conference, one of the workshops I attended talked about creating book covers to capture and hold a prospective reader’s interest.  There were many cover examples shown, and one of the things on the “don’t do this” list was:  don’t try to cram too many graphics and different fonts and information on a cover.  You want a balance of colors, images, and fonts, with ample white space so the reader’s eye flows where you want it to go, rather than flickering wildly around the cover and possibly missing the whole point.

It’s the same thing you learn in photography classes when framing images and even quilting classes when laying out patterns.   Images (and patterns) can go from nice to wow! with the prudent use of a little white space.

When I thought more about the story that didn’t work for me, I realized that there was basically no “white space.”  The story was jammed packed with action and details and sub-plots and misdirection.  There were swaths of description of terrain and movement that I struggled (often unsuccessfully) to visualize.

There was no time, during the course of the story, to catch my breath.  It was like riding a roller-coaster that was nothing but one long long drop down.

Exciting, but part of the fun of a roller-coaster is the transition from up to down to twisting around.  The contrast is what makes it all work and makes you want to ride again.

I think that’s why that second story didn’t work.  After a while, the long long drop down became too much and I just wanted the story to finish whooshing by so I could disembark and go recuperate somewhere quiet and calm.

That may just be me though.

Judging from the reviews the book garnered on Goodreads, there are a number of readers out there who where quite happy with the rush of the story.

So, how about you?  Are you a fan of non-stop, densely written stories or do you prefer a little more white space?

7 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Don’t Forget the White Space

    • Exactly. I have to wonder how much I missed in the story because it rushed by too fast. On the other hand, if I ever re-read it, I’m likely to have all kinds of new discoveries.

      Always a bright side.

  1. That “scene/sequel” dynamic is the foundation for a lot of fiction and the subject of a lot of how-to writing books, largely because it works. After a big action sequence, our hero needs to figure out what to do next. And readers need to figure it out along with him/her. And really, nonstop action doesn’t let us know the characters usually, either.

    • That’s a good point about knowing the characters, Kay. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I had trouble keeping track of who was who in the story. That sounds like a better reason than “short attention span” – right?

  2. I agree with your premise and with the two previous commenters.

    That said, I just finished reading Louise Penny’s 8th book, A Beautiful Mystery, the one set in the remote Canadian monastery, and it felt like that book was 90% white space–descriptions of the monastery, of plainchant, of the ability of the monks to read facial expressions expertly because of their vow of silence, of the beauty of the blended voices. Three-quarters of the way through I vowed to myself I was giving up on her, only to have her end on a cliffhanger kind of thing with a favorite character. So now I don’t know what I’m going to do.

    On a related note, as mentioned yesterday, I’m currently working on a short story. Because of their brevity, they allow far less room for white space but in this first draft it feels like I’m out- whtespacing Ms. Penny. We shall see.

    • I hadn’t thought of that, Jeanne, but A Beautiful Mystery does have a lot of white space. It really throws the active scenes into stark constraint.

      I’ll admit, that is not one of my favorite stories in the series, mostly because I was devastated for the characters. It also left me with a longing for chocolate blueberries that has yet to be successfully fulfilled, and caused me to pull out my Gregoria’s Chant CDs . . .but I digress.

      I’d definitely recommend giving the next book a try. Having grown so attached to the characters, I was a little afraid to continue reading. I actually read some of the Goodreads reviews (with spoilers), before deciding. The book was totally worth it for me, once I started reading though. It has a couple heartbreaking / emotionally charged scenes but How the Light Gets In is my favorite in the series, after A Rule Against Murder (which I loved for the interactions between Gamache and his wife.

      How the LIght Gets In also feels like a natural ending point for the series. There are more books, and I’ve enjoyed them, but if I had stopped instead, that would have been fine too. I believe that book is also the last one by her original narrator (if you have listened to the audio versions of the story).

      As to the short story – I love the “whitespacing Ms. Penny” analysis. I have no doubt you’ll be about to wrestle the story into a well-balanced entertaining shape and am looking forward to reading it.

  3. I think I prefer a happy middle. If there’s a lot of white space (especially gorgeous white space), I . . . well, it depends on how I feel. I rush through it, trying to get to the goodie, or I think, “Oh, here’s a good place to put the book down and do the dishes” — and sometimes I never come back.

    And strangely enough, the same thing applies to a book with too much action (although, since I’m getting dopamine pops, I’m more likely to read it right through, but with some resentment towards the author for keeping me up past bedtime). If I’m overwhelmed, I may put it aside for a day I can think about it more.

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