In writing, we structure our narrative to provide a smooth story flow, clarity, and a combination of riveting suspense with reflection, and thematic threads, among other important components. One way to do this effectively, is to create white space at various intervals. Mozart once said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
Likewise, this idea of white space as breathing room, is stretched further in Thomas Merton’s quote, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm”.
It is the alternation between words and white space that helps to make the story work. Without a place to break, the reader will grow weary from reading, not unlike the way physical overtraining without rest between work- outs places stress on the muscles, joints and bones, resulting in fatigue and soreness, ultimately negatively affecting physical performance. This works the same way for the reader. Too many words without white space nestled between- to reflect, absorb or simply to rest one’s eyes, might encourage the reader to give up, to move on to something else.
Supporting this idea, Caitlin Berve summarizes this concept in her February 2019 Blog; How to Format Transitions: Scenes, Point of View, and Time; “The extra white space also gives readers a chance to pause, finish taking in what they just read, and prepare for the change.”
Similarly, according to Darren Matthews in his Why White Space Matters in Writing and How to Use it, published in The Startup/Medium; “White space adds drama to a great article by enabling the reader to focus on the words, giving space for the reader to pause, contemplate the story, and return to the action.”
Using the void keeps readers hooked, writes Gwenna Laithland in her July 2019 piece, How to Appreciate the White Space in Writing, published in The Writing Cooperative. Elaborating on this concept, she recounts a lesson she learned in writing, during her brief tenure as interim gallery director, in which she explains how she was directed by the exhibition artist to rehang pieces of his art which she had already hung, because he felt they were too close together with insufficient space between. The artist explained this would allow the white space to frame the work. At that time, she thought he was a “pretentious old sod with awfully esoteric views on the importance of his artwork”, however; she later admitted, after re-hanging the pieces to allow for white space between, each piece suddenly stood out, highlighted by the blank wall around them.
Hence, in addition to supporting Laithland’s rationale to establish a void that will keep readers hooked, that gallery experience produced a new understanding of how creating white space enhances the story, allowing each narrative to stand out as something special, highlighted by the blank walls around it.
Laithland continues, “When you read a story, you want to be pulled into those worlds. Readers want a new reality crafted for them, the borders of their regular world, blurred out of existence. Writers can fulfill this demand by creating white space, a void of context or details.”
Referring to more than simply meaningless blank space on the page, she was suggesting how important it is for readers to have questions, therefore; by creating white space, or a void with no information, it allows for the reader to pause, to evaluate and identify with the author’s purpose, to use her own imagination to fill in the gap, or to conjecture solutions or desirable endings, which moves the reader to continue reading, to remain interested and engaged.
Like most aspects of writing, this is true in real-life as well, or in our ‘regular world’ as Laithland astutely labeled it. I know for me, spending too many days in a row remaining productive; whether working, studying, socializing, exercising, cleaning, organizing, or writing, without space in between for down-time, causes me to feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, or mentally and physically drained. On the other hand, if I make room for intermittent periods of white space in between, for a quiet jaunt with my inner self for a time out to unwind, I become one with her sense of peace, grounded by her calm that washes over me like a white-tipped ocean wave rolling over me, cooling my sunbaked skin.
To further illustrate the importance of white space in our real-life, Bhante Sumano, a Jamaican American Theravada Buddhist monk, writes in his June 2022 piece, The Power of Silence, published in the Buddhist Lions Roar,” The use of silence has purpose. It’s to create the right conditions to be with ourselves and examine our internal world. We take some time just to observe this body, this mind, this heart….. Silence helps cultivate this awareness, whether it’s the collective silence of a Buddhist retreat or the solitary silence of our daily meditation practice…. you retreat from sights, sounds, scents, flavors, sensations and even thoughts of the world. “
Along those lines, Sumano’s notion is marvelously summarized by the famous poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, when he said, “Listen to silence. It has so much to say.”
Resonating both in life, as well as in writing, the white spaces we create between the chapters of our stories provide time outs where we catch our breath, where we decide if it is time to edit or revise, time to adjust our course, regroup or start from a new spot, or on the contrary, to reaffirm we are in the correct place, on the right path and to keep going.
Further, the white spaces we create between the real-life pages we author, allows us to ponder, accept and appreciate the road behind us- both the failures and successes, and to envision the road up ahead, to look forward to our future, to our goals, our hopes and our dreams, yet it is also where we embrace the present, the place where we go inside to align with our inner self, to thank her for remaining steady even when the outside world is spinning out of control, and to encourage her to stay the course. It is where we become one with her, united by our mutual objective to attain peace, stability, and contentment, tethered together by strong, solid ropes of gratitude and hope.
White space is the place where we stand apart from the many tangled first drafts of our story, where we come to understand that the mistakes we made are not us, just pages turned- to transition us to the next chapter.
Creating white space in our written fiction allows the separation between reading, and rest or refection for our audience, and in our real-life stories, it creates separation between the busy monkey- mind trying to bully us, frighten us and discourage us, from the inner self trying to ground us. In other words, in writing, white space frames the story, and in life, white space restores us.
Creating white space is like decluttering a house, weeding the garden, skimming the pool, or taking sips of water between glasses of wine. It removes the bad stuff, filtering out the negative, to encourage the good parts to rise to the top. Like the thick white line bordering the shoulders of a highway, the white space separates the fast-paced traffic from the empty space along the outer lanes, meant for rest stops and emergency break downs. We pause there, we regroup, and we get back on the road to continue our journey.
Albert Einstein said, “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind” and similarly, Mark Twain had it right when he said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
To this point, “White space”, says Ellen Buikema in her White Space in Writing article in “Writers in the Storm” Blog, “helps keep sensory overload at bay. Being bombarded with too much sound can cause some to become irritated, so can too many visuals. Adding white space provides breathing space. Calm. Like a pause in song, white space can help create drama, emotion, a bit of quiet before a storm of words. White space is the canvas where we paint our words”. She further says, “a blank side gives the reader emotional space to regroup for the next tale.”
God, when creating the world, took a day off to rest, so why can’t you (Exodus 20:11). If God says we need rest, then we do. By creating white space in our fictional stories- as writers, and in our real-life stories- as people, we build, manifest, and make use of God- instructed rest stops all along the routes of our journey.
And so, as writers, it is as important to create white space as it is to place the right words on the page, to create the story that will work. Similarly, as individuals, it is as important to create white space for pause, to take note of who we are, of who we want to be, and where we should go from here, and who we will help along the way, as it is to create the scenes in, or moments of, our story. It is the place where we spend time to figure out what ending we ultimately want for our story, both in fiction and in real-life, and the path we should pursue- word by word, step by step, white space by white space- to arrive there.