Using Spacing to Amp Up Emotional Effects

A couple summers ago, I had the chance to see Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Sense and Sensibility multiple times.

While I’m definitely an Austen fan, I still loved this production above and beyond expectation. Part of this had to do with the incredible casting, and the terrific romantic tension between the leads.

But it also had to do with selective use of silence. When Edward Ferrars shows up in Elinor’s living room only to find Lucy Steele there, the silences between Edward and Elinor are both hysterical and wrenching.

The literary equivalent of such silence is spacing, or line breaks.

In school, most of us are taught to treat a paragraph as a unit of discrete text. In fact, I teach my students as much: a topic sentence indicating what the paragraph is about, three to four sentences of explanation and support, and then a concluding sentence. This box unit is something that many of us have a hard time shaking even when we write fiction rather than academic prose.

But sometimes the way we break up text can make all the difference to the way something is read.

A while ago, I read Jo Baker’s lovely Longborne. Baker, I noticed, was quite adept at the use of spaces–prose silences, if you will–to highlight important realizations.

Take, for instance, this passage in which the hero has just realized he is in love.

All run together, the text would look like this:

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes [of her leaving] . . . and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the corner–to arrive at the shock of a full stop. He loved her. Oh. It could have no effect on anything at all. What he felt did not matter: it changed nothing. But it interested him. He held the phrase in his mind as a priest might hold a chalice, dazed by what it conveyed beyond its practical reality.

But as Baker has written them, they read like this:

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes [of her leaving] . . . and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the corner–to arrive at the shock of a full stop. He loved her. 

Oh. 

It could have no effect on anything at all. 

What he felt did not matter: it changed nothing. 

But it interested him. 

He held the phrase in his mind as a priest might hold a chalice, dazed by what it conveyed beyond its practical reality.

I LOVE the way the pacing works in this excerpt. That tiny “oh” given its own line speaks volumes about how the realization has shocked the reader. Then a series of short fragments–again, testifying of the disjointed thought process of the hero–as he attempts to process this life-changing information.

Spaces give readers a chance to catch their breath.

To regroup.

But spacing also allows critical information to shine forth.

Good writers know to use both their words–and their spaces–to the best effect.

Obviously, this is a strategy I’m still learning to master. I’d love to know your experience with spacing–when have you used it to your advantage? What are your favorite examples of short paragraphs in prose?

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is coming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

 

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