Too much vertical space in your manuscript?

In filmmaking, vertical space is shorthand for script pages with lots of white and not a lot of words.

For scriptwriters it’s the rule. A script has dialogue, brief notes for action on the screen and not much else. It makes for quick reading and ensures a kind of textual scarcity that directors consider a virtue, since in the movie business, directors, not screenwriters, are the storytellers. They’re the ones who bring the action, dialogue, sound, light, color, and music together into a coherent narrative.

For a book author, however, a lot of vertical space is usually a sign of trouble. Too much of it shows us there’s something’s missing.

Dialogue alone can’t build a whole and complete world on the page. The author can’t rely on the camera, microphone, or green screen to create a scene in the reader’s mind. The book author creates not just what people are saying, but what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, how they appear in the flesh, their interior thoughts, and the sense of meaning that carries the narrative arc to some kind of emotional climax.

Scan your pages. Do you need sunglasses?

How can you reduce the glaring white space and increase your readers’ satisfaction, fulfillment, and yearning for more?

As a book author, you’re the boss, the creative director of the work. You’ve got the power to use as many literary elements and techniques as you deem necessary to get under the surface of spoken words, and to craft the dimensions of your narrative to engage the reader’s attention.

What’s missing?

Balance

I worked with a well-known writer whose first draft had an overabundance of white space. There was nothing but dialogue between two characters. Nothing else. We spent months creating a multi-dimensional context, adding action, description, and meaningful details. We ultimately achieved a more readable balance between a pruned down version of the original dialogue plus these other literary elements, and the book sold literally millions of copies throughout the world.

Action

Tell us what your characters are doing — their movements, their reactions to the physical rhythm of people and objects around them.

Sensory description

Evoke in your reader’s imagination the shape and color of the story’s environment. Where are your characters? What elements of their physical context add to the emotional glue of the story? Not only the way things look, but how they smell, feel to the touch, taste on the tongue or in a character’s viscera, his guts.

Inner thoughts

Describe what your characters are feeling beyond just what they say. Whether using a first or third person narrator, you can spell out ongoing ruminations, internal responses, the secret, personal stuff.

Focus of attention

As the sole director of this work, you control the eye of the camera. You can create an emotional landscape by guiding your reader’s eye to specific objects and words — what Orhan Pumuk, the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, describes as the “vast forest of moments and details”.

Exceptions

Vertical space may be a perfectly admirable quality when writing poetry of a certain kind, no problem. And there’s no rule or prohibition that should inhibit you from trying to write either all dialogue or very short paragraphs that create a special effect, a neomodern, literary experiment. Sometimes it works, though in my experience it’s pretty hard to accomplish.

I read a manuscript recently that had double columns all the way down, so you could read the same scene from two separate points of view at the same time. Challenging but interesting. And many years ago, I published a book of unbound pages with only a few words on each sheet that could be shuffled and read in any order. It was a big hit in France, but our translation sold only a few hundred copies.

But these are outlier ideas so proceed with caution.

What about you?

When you flip through your manuscript, do you see a lot of white space? Could be a clue that your story needs more depth and dimension to hold it together. Think of this as a quick diagnostic tool and try taking a closer look to see if those parts need development.

Let me know what you think. I’ll keep an eye out for any questions here in comments.

8 Responses to Too much vertical space in your manuscript?

  1. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Being a prose writer as well as a screenplay writer, I would compare the white space in a novel as an equal to a dissolve after a scene in a screenplay to show a larger separation in time and place. But even speculative screenplays, cuts (quicker/less time elapse) and dissolves are used sparingly. In prose formats such as novels and short stories white space has a place but should also be used sparingly to avoid excess and to maintain effectiveness.

  2. Greg Strandberg

    I like dialogue because it steers me away from huge blocks of text, which I might otherwise have a tendency to create. The problem I’ve got now is with dialogue tags. Instead of having solid lines of back and forth going down the page I’ve now got “he nodded” appearing way to much at the beginning of sentences. Better than “he said” in the middle? I’m not sure.

    Lately I’ve been breaking up driving dialogue with descriptions of where they’re going.

    “Step on it!”
    “I am!” Jim shouted as he turned onto Henderson.
    But it was too late, and by the time he made a right onto Front Street he was slamming his hand down on the wheel.
    “Shoot!” he shouted. “He got away!”

    People living in that city might love it, but I’m starting to think I’ve got to many street names popping up.

  3. Busy Mama » The Weekend Edition

    [...] Too much vertical space in your manuscript? (The Book Deal)   [...]

  4. henri

    Balance is the key. I recently had a short story make the final cut for publication in an anthology, but alas it fell short because of an overly large block of dialogue half way through.

  5. Christine Bloom

    I agree that there needs to be a balance between dialogue and prose on the page so the reader is brought into the scene through establishing the setting, tone, and inner thoughts of the POV character. I think it’s very important to give characters things to do in a scene so that as they are conversing with another character we might get insight into their frame of mind. But it needs to be done in such a way it doesn’t disconnect the reader from the scene or lead off into tangent.

  6. LinkedUp: December 12, 2013 « Beth Jusino Beth Jusino

    [...] Step One: Study the Craft Scan your pages. Do you need sunglasses? The book author creates not just what people are saying, but what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, how they appear in the flesh, their interior thoughts, and the sense of meaning that carries the narrative arc to some kind of emotional climax.” [...]

  7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    The ideal always has to be: whatever doesn’t get in the way of reading the text, absorbing the story, and making the necessary mental constructs to have a complete story – in the reader’s mind.

    White space; text font, size, kerning, and line spacing; beginning capitals, first paragraph not indented, separators between scenes; margins and spacing on the page; headers and footers and gutters.

    Everything matters, everything needs to be in balance, and everything has to be transparent to the reader.

    I can’t count the number of books I’ve tried to read where the text is a massive block of pale grey tiny letters surrounded by huge blocks of white space, space that should have been used between letters, words, and paragraphs to make the text legible.

    Or the times I’ve given up trying to read a novel in sans serif type.

    In the modern age, where a page/book can be quickly re-typeset in a number of combinations, there are no excuses for some of the things put out into the world.

    Now, even more, as my eyes age, I just don’t bother.

    It’s a subtle way of ignoring the reader’s needs (in favor of what, I don’t know. Economy?).

    But it biases a reader against those books – and, as a writer, I don’t want that to happen to mine.

  8. Alan Rinzler

    Alicia

    I have the same problems reading small dense type. When I work on a manuscript I like to increase the font to at least 14 points with 1.5 spaces between lines.

    This post, however, is more about the balance needed between dialogue (lots of white space) and dense text (the rest of the story). Book authors — unlike the movie scriptwriters referenced in this post — have the luxury of being able to write not just what characters say, but all the other elements — inner thoughts, description, when creating their literary reality.

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