Why readers want to read a lot of white space
May 20, 2016
I DIDN’T ALWAYS WRITE the way I write now.
Once I tried to jam as many words in a sentence as William Faulkner did, and the sentences were filled with commas and overflowing with adverbs and adjectives.
I could dangle participles with the best of them.
Gerunds were my best friends.
But, alas, times change.
A writer’s voice changes.
And you wake up one day and realize that you are writing for a whole new generation that is impatient, on the go, raised on television, and are a slave to emails at business or at home.
Nothing is quite like it used to me.
I decided that the time had come for me to change right along with it.
There was a time when readers wanted literature.
Now they want stories.
They once loved to luxuriate between the pages of long novels.
They bought epics.
Now they are reading eBooks.
Now they want novels that have immediate impact, hit them right between the eyes in the first paragraph, race madly to the finish line, read page after page of dialogue, and have the last line waiting for them after about 50,000 words.
They want brief.
They want quick.
For example, I opened one scene in Conspiracy of Lies with these few words:
THE LITTLE MAN removed his fedora and stood there in the dimly lit hotel room, nervously rolling the brim in his hands while his eyes darted like those of a rabbit between the bullet holes in the headboard of the bed and the dead man lying on the floor, a gentleman who had no doubt left this earth before he realized the lights were out.
Once I would have turned that little narrative into three pages.
See the scene.
See what’s going on.
Then move on.
Readers want stories like the one Ernest Hemingway wrote and said it was the saddest story he had ever read. It had six words. Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.
I am convinced that readers want novels written like film scripts.
Set the scene with narrative.
Jump straight to dialogue.
And let the dialogue tell the story.
Readers no longer want to wade through a sea of gray type.
A sea of gray type is deadly.
Here is my formula.
One-word paragraphs if necessary.
One-word sentences if necessary.
Gnaw your stories down to the bone.
Readers want the bone and little else.
They want the story without the trimmings.
The trimmings bore them.
Is it great literature?
It can be.
In fact, it takes more talent to set a scene in a dozen words than a dozen sentences.
Hemingway did all right with that formula. So has Cormac McCarthy. Robert Parker sold millions of copies of books filled with short, punchy dialogue.
Last year, Stephen Woodfin ran across an article that made a lot of sense to me. The gist of all was this. People spend their days reading reading emails.
A lot of white space.
Readers love white space.
So that’s why I write the way I write.
People don’t have to read long paragraphs from left to right.
People can read straight down.
For example, this blog took fifty-four lines.
But it only has 565 words.
And nowhere are you in danger of being lost in a sea of gray type.