That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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3 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, design, essay-lyric, fiction, journalism, structure, teaching, education

3 responses to “That sweet white space

  1. Uh oh. . . rarely asterisks, but I am frequently guilty of inserting digital dingbats.

  2. Truth be told, I kind of like philodendron leaves myself.

    And I was reading a book the other day that sometimes used pretty shafts of wheat, raising the question and issue of a whole new level of meaning: when pure white space is used and when dingbats are used in the same work. Presumably open line breaks would be used at the end of a movement in a section and symbols used in the white spaces between major sections. Since publishers generally control such elements as part of design, I wonder if writers can and do and might work with them on this.

  3. It’s thoughtful essays like this one that make the arrival of the capital letters NARRATIVE a welcome sight whenever I see it in my In Box. Truth be told, the only time I’ve given the matter much thought is when editing copy and freelancers insert white space and leave a note to the editor not to take it out. Our team was generally of the philosophy of taking them out unless there was a very good reason for them, which was obviously Melville’s point of view. At any rate, thanks, Richard, for yet another thought-provoking look at our craft.