Friday, March 11, 2022

Thinking About White Space, by Karla Stover


As if writers didn't have enough to worry about, what with plots, settings, likeable / believable characters and other stuff, along comes WHITE SPACE. 

There are a number of definitions for whitespace, but for fiction writers, it's "the emptiness between paragraphs."

An explanation from author Cheryl Kaye Tardiff  posits that the "space helps the reader process the information in the story / work, gives the reader's eyes a break, and keeps them interested. Look at each page as if it were a work of art," she says, adding that "some sentences will have more impact on their own" She also says, "the sentences closest to the white space are the ones most remembered." Her article on consists of two short paragraphs and two one line paragraphs. They alternate.

The article also has two examples: one from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge  (no white space) and one from Melissa Bank's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, so much white space it felt like a Dick-and-Jane book though the article refers to it as a "relaxed narrative."

When used, white space is supposed to "draw the reader’s attention to the words on the page, make the print easier to read, and improve comprehension." It's also supposed to make it easier for a reader to remember where he / she left off.

According to, when properly used, it also makes the page appear "uncluttered and calming."

However, has another opinion. "White space," is says "can be used to build suspense and tension in a story. It's use is tantamount to squeezing the hand of the person next to you in the movie theatre. A wordless summary that, yes, things are about to get worse, and [ provides ] a space for the reader to anticipate just how conditions will worsen."

 Author Deborah Swift says, the use of white space is particularly helpful "in historical fiction when you don’t want to describe decades in which nothing new actually happens, but it's necessary to show the passing of time. Transitions are often hard to achieve," she says, "but the white space does it effortlessly. It signals that we have switched to another time, location or point of view."

In researching this topic I used four different search engines and looked at dozens of articles, and other than the two above and no matter what criteria I used, I couldn't find any examples. People were apparently just too busy offering up opinions to do any actual research. I'm guessing that Dickens probably never thought about making the pages of his novels easier on the eyes. And I don't think it's much of a consideration in non-fiction, at least, not in the books I read.

"" asks the question: "without whitespace, how easy is it to glance at a page and in 5 - 10 seconds, get a general idea of what it is about? ( The article doesn't clarify what "it" is, either the page or the book ).

""  however, feels the need to remind writers that "excessive white space can create a low information density on the page."
The other day I went through my massive collection of books looking for some to donate to a fund raiser ( I whittled out 10 ). I don't know how I ended up with a Zane Gray book but it was surprisingly well-spaced. Not true of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life.

I guess the bottom line is to ignore all the advice and write the kind of pages you would want to read. After all, Solar Bones, which won the 2026 Goldsmith Prize was only one sentence.


  1. How interesting...reminding us that a book, even in electronic form, is an artifact. I have heard from several readers grateful for BWL size and format and how they enhance the reading experience. White space is part of it!

  2. I learned a long time ago the importance of white space, along with short sentences and short paragraphs. Apparently, all these devices help reader comprehension and speed up the reading. Writing fiction, I find these very useful.

  3. I never think of white space. I just write


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