Monday, June 22, 2009

Stories and White Space

My husband began reading a new novel last night and commented that the author had used several long words in the first couple of pages. He said it was hard to figure out what was going on because trying to work out all the meanings interrupted the flow of the story. It seems to be a very descriptive historical novel, and the author has proven that she is smart but not that she is a good writer, in his opinion.

It reminds me of similar novels I've tried to read in the past. It's sometime true of books that have won prestigious prizes. The intelluctuals on the judging panels like them but the normal population won't necessarily agree with them. These books are brilliant and clever but not necessarily inviting to read.

Sometimes authors use slabs and slabs of description and imagery when I'd rather just skip all that and find out what's going to happen in the story. It reminds me of the nineteenth century classics I used to study in English lessons at school and Uni. I read once that writers like Charles Dickens needed to provide lots of descriptive slabs because TV was still a thing of the future. For example, you might find that Dickens spent five pages describing the interior of a lawyer's office, but that was because he knew that many of his readers would have no idea what a lawyer's office might contain. We in the 21st century however, have seen enough TV shows to hazard a pretty good guess of what you might find in there, so we can dispense with all the description. To readers in the 1800s it was necessary, but to us it may become tedious.

Somebody once pointed out that we 21st century readers tend to unconsciously search for "white space" when we're perusing books to buy. If a page is filled with blocks of chunky paragraphs, we instinctively get the idea that reading it may become a bit 'heavy' and require lots of concentration. When description is sparse and dialogue is plentiful, there is often lots of white space at the end of lines. Readers only need a glance to get the impression that this story will be fast-moving and easy to read. I've never forgotten that lesson because I immediately knew that it's true in my case.

When it comes to my own novels, I like to write stories that appeal to me. I consider myself to be a fairly typical representative of the population so if I like it, it's not unreasonable to hope that many other normal people will like them too.


  1. I tend to enjoy a mix of books. I like the fast reads, but I also like the occasional "meat and potatoes" type of book. This year, interspersed with Percy Jackson and some YA books I've read "The Professor and the Madman" (about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary) and right now I'm reading "How Lincoln Learned to Read." I like the easy reads, but I feel the need to keep challenging myself as an example to the children. Especially now that Marina's read more classics than I have. ;o)

    Peace and Laughter,

  2. I totally agree with you about some of the books that have won awards - reading them (or at least trying to read them!), I feel like the author is just showing how smart they are - but it doesn't make for an easy read for the rest of the population.

    Thanks for the explanation about the pages of description - I still remember being turned off Thomas Hardy for that reason! Well, that and the fact that I thought Tess needed a good slap and to stand up for herself :)

  3. This makes a lot of sense. I usually like a fair amount of description, however, as it helps me picture the scene. Maybe that's because I haven't had TV in 11 years! I think I subconsciously skim over description if I don't really need it. Funny how our minds work. The white space issue is a new concept to me but that makes sense, too. War And Peace is full page, small type - obviously a heavy read. (No, I haven't read it but I'm challenging Chad to!) Little House books, on the other hand, are easy read with lots of white space. I have read them so many times, both to myself and out loud to children, I nearly have them memorized!

    There was a book written a few years back called, "The Know-It-All" and this guy had quite the ego. Big words and an arrogant attitude all showed up in his writing - not to mention swear words sprinkled about. I stopped after 3 chapters and sold the book at a garage sale. This guy needed to read a few classics - he was clueless as a writer, in my opinion. Yet, his book sold quite well. I guess he had enough white space!

    Enjoy your week!

  4. LOL I confess.
    I tend to look for white space...because when you read books like Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler-- the descriptions..the technical "stuff" -- can be overwhelming. I don't mind descriptive passages that are actually desciptive instead of over load. LOL

    So I love it. I"m with you.
    I read what I like - hopefully I'll write what I like, too. :-)