Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Exploring space

Last January Laura Ruby brought to our first faculty meeting a New Yorker article written by John McPhee on “Structure.”  (January 14, 2013, p. 46). And she made copies for those of us who asked. Such is the pace of the residency that I did not read the article last January—nor when I got home (no excuse). But last week, cleaning off my desk, I found it again, and finally….

McPhee writes about his difficulties and strategies in organizing the pieces he writes. He recalls his high-school writing teacher, Mrs. McKee, and shares her philosophy in the words he says to his own writing students: “You can build a strong sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in non-fiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” 

I’m not going to try to summarize his entire article but rather focus on the section in which he refers to his writing of Encounters with the Arch Druid. This section seems useful for both fiction and non-fiction writers. For this book McPhee went on three journeys:  “A, in the North Cascades with a mining geologist; B, on a Georgia island with a resort developer;  C, on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with a builder of huge dams. D—David Brower, the high priest of the Sierra Club—would be in all three parts.”  Going down the Colorado River, McPhee, Brower, the dam-builder and the guide come to Upset Rapid, a place so dangerous that the guide, by rule, “had to stop and study the heavier rapids before proceeding.” Readers learn that people have died in Upset Rapid.  When the guide is ready to proceed they get back in the raft, except for David Brower. “Brower was waiting for us when we touched the riverbank in quiet water.” The dam builder asked him why he did not ride through the rapid. Brower replied: “Because I’m chicken.”

McPhee ends that section right there and leaves a half inch of white space.  Then a new section. “… that describes Brower as a rope-and-piton climber of the first order, who had clung by his fingernails to dizzying rock faces and granite crags. The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say—violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast.”

McPhee left space for the reader to make sense of David Brower and form a conclusion about the complexities we all carry within us—so much more effective than the writer telling us, concluding for us.  As readers, we take to heart that which we have discovered for ourselves, perhaps more than the lessons we are given.

Like McPhee, we sometimes leave a space in the telling that lets readers put together contrasting traits in a character’s make-up.

 First to mind is the bear in I Want My Hat Back (by Jon Klassen) who loves his hat and needs his hat, a clue to a gentle nature, but who is willing to do we-aren’t-quite-sure-what to get his hat back, revealing perhaps a not-so gentle nature. 

Hunting the White Cow
by Tres Seymour is one of my favorite picture books, I think because there is so much white space—not contrasts within a character, but just so much we don’t know: why did the cow “go wild”? how does the cow get that rope “broke off” without breaking her own neck? what’s  going to happen when the girl learns cow calling?
In a more serious work, Liza Ketchum’s Newsgirl , there’s a big white space around the relationship between Amelia’s mother and Estelle.  Readers can piece together what makes sense to them.

I’m sure there are more examples of writers using “white space.” This feels like an issue worth exploring further. Perhaps we can share titles of books which make effective use of space, leaving out.  

I’m wondering, too, if there are times when we don’t want to use white space, but want to tell the reader exactly what is going on. Here’s what we learn about Opal’s daddy, “the Preacher,” in Chapter 2  in Because of Winn Dixie: “My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it’s hard for me to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach…” “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking his head out into the world.” We have a  pretty complete picture here. There's not too much to guess about.

What’s the difference in these two instances?  Perhaps it comes down to what do we want the reader to pause over, to imagine? What is critical to the story? What do we have to make clear in order to move the story along? The daddy’s change is an important part of the story in Winn-Dixie, so we need to be clear where he is at the beginning. The mom’s relationship with Estelle in Newsgirl is almost a part of the setting. As such, we only need to know that both Mom and Estelle care about Amelia. We don’t need to pin down their relationship to each other.

All of this makes me want to look more carefully at my own writing to be sure I am telling what needs to be told and leaving room for the reader to make sense of some of the puzzles.

More later…maybe January.


  1. I love this. I'm fascinated by gaps in storytelling--what we leave for the reader to leap over.

  2. Me too, Anne. Makes me want to go through what I'm working on now and cut sections and see what happens to pacing, to plot.

  3. Yes! What's unsaid is as interesting as what is. As soon as I read this post I wanted to go back to my WIP and start pruning.

  4. Ah, how to find the perfect balance between too much and not enough--when we want a reader to fill in the blanks, when to keep them guessing and when we might want them to know everything. Thanks, Jackie!

  5. I told my daughter Sarah about this "space" question and she sent me a quote from one of her poems, "Stretchmarks": "Love is what's between the lines./We stopped writing notes." (She writes as Sadie Ducet.)