Between the Lines

After reading the essay The Art of the Paragraph by Elisa Gabbert in her collection The Word Pretty, I’ve come to ponder all those blank spaces between (and around) the lines.

I’ve read several books recently that don’t offer the tab of space at the beginning of each paragraph, but instead leave a blank line between blocks of text, like I do with my blog posts. Kenny Mooney’s Desk Clerk, Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, everything I’ve read by Kate Zambreno. There’s something clean and inviting about all that space on a page. It makes the text easy to dip into and difficult to turn away from – like popcorn, I’ll have just one more piece then just one more again…

But in literature it does more than that. It commands a sort of subconscious respect for every single section; a dramaticism perhaps. It makes us take each short statement or grouping of sentences as something to behold in itself. Something that makes its own point independently of the narrative as a whole; making beauty or profundity from the otherwise overlooked. It works when done sparingly to juxtapose traditional paragraphing, but also when done throughout a book, where each paragraph becomes more akin to the stanza of poetry than a chapter in a novel. Every bite is given the power of a first line.

In all three examples I used above, the writers are highly skilled at this sentence and stanza level. It wouldn’t really work otherwise, it’d be like drawing attention to all the lumps and bumps. I’m considering whether I could use this style of paragraphing in a novella I’m working on, but I have to say being forced to examine each and every beat is a little daunting!

Paragraph placement and the careful use of blank space can be very effective in telling the reader what to focus on. When the flow of the plot requires us to keep turning the pages without necessarily stopping to appreciate a single inflection, we can wait until the end of a chapter for our breath. But when the blanks come often, it sends a different signal to the reader. It literally gives us space to think, even if it’s only a few millimetres.

We can create white space in the margins as well as between lines. I’ve noticed many contemporary books making use of this: exaggerating margins or even giving the text a shape sends a signal to the reader. Margins much broader than standard look clean and stylised, but they can also change the underlying emphasis. In Kenny Mooney’s In the Vast and Boundless Deep, he makes his prose into a continuous tower to mimic the tower in the text. Reading this seemingly endless paragraph a gives an urgent, almost claustrophobic sensation, while the white space around it seems to imitate the limitless sky and the space beyond the character’s stream of consciousness.

In Jeff Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, he uses a variety of blank space techniques borrowed from poetry, including shaping, staggering and sometimes just a couple of sentences or even few words on a page. The latter gives a space for contemplation that echoes the theme of loss, isolation and vulnerability. The changing shapes makes the reader feel the way events and minds are coming loose. House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski is another obvious example of this as we are taken through a haunted house in a haunted mind.

I do think it’s important to get the balance right in playing with space, between enhancing the text and irritating the reader. It would be all to easy for the format to overshadow the text itself and become a gimmick. But it’s definitely worth thinking about how we can use the white space as well as the black ink; after all, it’s the interplay between the two that creates the whole experience.

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