The physical space of words


Recently AJ wrote a great post on finding the unfamiliar phrase which is a topic I adore.  One of my favorite authors is Vladimir Nabokov and the story I heard is that he would write a phrase and then examine it, probing at the words to find it perhaps there could be something better, less expected, more unique.  Taking a phrase beyond the cliche is a great way to hit a point home with the reader — to push their imagination in the direction you want them to go and make important details really stand out.

AJ’s post does a great job talking about how we choose words to create unfamiliar phrases and I want to piggy back off of that and talk about the broader idea of how we get information across to the reader not just in the words we choose, but how we use them.  

First, sometimes using a cliche is ok.  Cliches exist for a reason — it’s an easy and familiar way to get a point across to a reader.  Sometimes the point you’re trying to make in your phrasing is a minor one and you just need to get the info out and move on.  If every description in your book is built with unfamiliar phrases, they begin to lose impact.  Instead, think of unfamiliar phrasing as a tool — a way to zero in the reader’s focus and attention — and use it during the moments of the story you want to highlight.  I think of it as digging into into a scene and slowing it down for emphasis.

For example, my first series is about zombies which, as you can imagine, means I end up killing a lot of zombies.  When the zombie being killed in an action scene is anonymous I don’t mind if a cliche slips in because my goal is to keep the action going fast which means I don’t want the reader pausing to think or linger over a phrase.  However, there are moments when I want to slow things down — maybe the zombie being killed is a former friend, love, or family member.  That’s something that will have a large emotional impact on the character and so I want to dig in.  I want the reader to viscerally feel every moment and so I try to use a lot of unfamiliar phrasing that the reader can’t easily gloss over.  

Second, be aware of burying your lead.  As a lawyer one of the “tricks” I learned in drafting was how to bury adverse facts in a complaint or brief.  You couldn’t just ignore them — adverse facts have to be included — but you could make them seem unimportant and not stand out.  The two biggest tricks: passive phrasing and burying the fact in the middle/end of a long, boring paragraph.  Readers get easily overwhelmed and tend to read the first couple of sentences and the last sentence of a paragraph and skim the rest. 

Be aware of this in your own writing.  If you have an important detail to get across to the reader, make the phrasing stand out and don’t bury it.  I was discussing this with a critique partner yesterday.  She pointed out that in my WIP the only way to figure out the age of my protagonist is through a short line buried in a paragraph (that also requires math).  Readers easily miss things like this and if the information you’re trying to get across is critical, sometimes it’s a smart idea to repeat it to make extra sure the reader gets it (they say someone has to hear something three times before it sticks).

For example, if it’s important that my reader know that my protagonist is 12, then maybe over the course of a few paragraphs or pages I can mention that she’s starting seventh grade soon, recently attended her best friend’s 12th birthday party, can’t wait until she’s finally a teen next year, etc.  All are ways to get her age across to the reader in a way that’s not repetitive but will help stick that detail in the reader’s mind.

Third, sometimes the important bits of a story should physically occupy a lot of space on the page.  Every story has a backbone of critical moments and these are the ones you want to make sure the reader is fully immersed in.  You don’t want to gloss over these events in a paragraph.  At the same time, you don’t want to artificially inflate a scene, but when you’ve been building toward a payoff, the reader will expect… well… a payoff.     

I have a character in my series who over the course of two books faces the question of whether he can kiss anyone (or if he does, will they become sick).  This isn’t a minor plot point — it’s a big part of his character.  So when he finally does kiss someone, it’s a big deal and I wrote several paragraphs about it.  My editor and I actually disagreed a bit over this because she edited the kiss down to a few lines.  But I knew this was a big emotional payoff for the character and the reader and I wanted that scene to physically occupy space on the page.  I didn’t want the reader to skim past this moment; instead, I wanted them to linger in it and to do that, I had to keep them in that moment with words on the page.     

How our words occupy space on the page (length of paragraphs, length of chapters, placement of details) can have a large impact on readers and it’s a useful tool for writers.  Of course, when we’re writing a first draft we’re usually focused on getting the story on the page and don’t need to be overly concerned with the physicality of them.  The techniques above are ones I often turn to in revisions — making sure I’m directing the reader’s focus where I want it, emphasizing the rights beats of the novel, and digging in for maximum emotional impact.  The effect may be subtle, but it adds another layer to your writing that can have a big payoff with the reader.      


17 comments to The physical space of words

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Cool post, Carrie. Thank you. And thank you especially for the point about adding space to the big payoff/climax scenes near the end of a story. This is very good food for thought for my WIP, whose ending(s) I think are currently a bit stunted. Now I’ll put some thought into where I can beef things up to make the wrap-up more satisfying.

  • “I didn’t want the reader to skim past this moment; instead, I wanted them to linger in it.”

    It is always best to linger on kisses. 😉

  • Great post! I often get so caught up in the story itself, I lose track of making my words have the impact they really need to have.

    Thanks for reminding us!

  • Loved this post! I especially like the idea of telling the reader something 3 times in various words–that is something I was trying to figure out just yesterday. I realized that a fairly minor fact about the MC needed to be clear to the reader early on and while I did mention the fact I didn’t think it would really stand out to the reader. Now I can go back and look at ways to reinforce the fact. Thanks!

  • Hepseba – thanks! I especially think the climax has to have a big payoff. I also think of it in terms of movies — if you pay attention to the kinds of scenes they linger on and the ones they gloss over. When you get to the big climax, the movie tends to spend time on it and I think it should be the same for a book. The key is figuring out how to beef up those scenes without losing tension and making them boring – lol.

    I agree Wolf 🙂

    Marie – I think it’s fantastic to get caught up in the story! Those are all things that I tend to think about toward the revision stage. When you’re caught up in the story, there’s no reason to break momentum!

    Sisi – yeah, the key is to make sure the reader gets it. It’s always frustrating to have a crit partner come back and say “you didn’t include X detail” and you can point to the exact page and line where you put that detail. BUT… if the reader doesn’t get it, they don’t get it no matter that you put it in there. That’s when I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter I’m right and the detail is there, what matters is that the reader get the detail and I’ve failed my job when they don’t.

  • Razziecat

    This is something I do think about. I’ve noticed that when an author wants to emphasize something, they often will put it in a separate paragraph, even if it’s only one or two sentences. I do this sometimes, although doing it too often makes the writing choppy, so I’m careful with it. Another way to bring in a critical fact is to convey it through dialog instead of backstory or infodump. Readers often pay more attention to dialog than to description.

  • Megan B.

    Great post! This is a good thing to think about, and I had never considered it as deeply as you do here.

    Regarding the issue of details like age, I often struggle with how to get those across without it seeming like author intrusion. The reader wants and needs to have an idea how old the MC is, but slipping in that info early is not always an easy task. I like what you suggest about saying it in several different ways, although that may be easier if the character is a child than if they are, say, 27.

  • I think about the physical space of words a lot, too. Like when it’s a good idea to put a line on its own paragraph to really bring attention to it, and when I don’t need to. Where I can fit in a snatch of action or description. If I have a long paragraph, there’s a reason (usually a thankfully infrequent need to focus on the description for one reason or another). I get to the point where I factor in number of syllables, to make sure it flows right. Still, I do sometimes get too focused, and details get accidentally lost. Thanks for highlighting this, Carrie.

  • Good point about putting important info in dialogue, Razziecat! That’s a good way of making it stand out. I also agree with putting important info in short paragraphs — readers tend to like white space. I do this a lot — my paragraphs are *tiny* because I think it ups the pacing. But when I really want to hammer something in, I’ll drop it on its own line for emphasis.

    Megan — interesting point about author intrusion. I’d be curious to hear what others think about this. In my opinion, there’s a certain amount of author intrusion that exists in all books. To a certain degree, the author has to embellish, emphasize and explain things that the character (if they were real) would never think about. I think readers are pretty lenient about this. But there are ways to get info like age in without having the character flat out say, “I’m 12.” I have the examples I mentioned above, and if they’re older (and it matters) there are other ways: in a romance a character could say, “she looks to be in her early 20’s, would she date a 34 year old like me?” and sometimes exact age doesn’t matter but a general age does (“I felt like an anonymous student among the other freshman”). I never say what the characters ages are in my Forest of Hands and Teeth series, but I do make it clear they’re in their late teens.

  • quillet

    I loved A.J.’s post (I never commented, but I’m still thinking about it), and I love this one too. Choosing the right words is often hard. I love your idea of white space, and putting really important info in its own paragraph. I tried that with some of my work, and it really helps!

    Thanks for the awesome advice. (I’m using it here, see, see?)

    As for author intrusion…my own general rule of thumb is to give only (almost only) those details that the p.o.v. character would know and/or notice during the scene told from her/his p.o.v. I can stretch that a bit more with third person than with first person, but for the most part it’s pretty much like your examples in your response to Megan’s comment. I try to get across the info readers need to know, but in a way that sounds natural for the character.

  • “It’s always frustrating to have a crit partner come back and say “you didn’t include X detail” and you can point to the exact page and line where you put that detail. BUT… if the reader doesn’t get it, they don’t get it no matter that you put it in there.”
    Goodness, yes. I’ve had moments where critters in my online group said exactly that, and my first impulse is often to say “I did too include it, you just didn’t see it.” I’ve read many books where, for example, I thought a character was a particular age for several chapters, and was shocked to find out I was wrong. But I know I read fairly quickly so I tend to blame myself for missing things.

    This is one of those times where I climb onto my high wire and start juggling eggs while trying to cross to the other side. If something is important for characterization, but not for moving the plot forward, I’m always afraid to mention it more than once or twice because then some critters accuse me of adding details that don’t move the plot forward. In my WIP, I mentioned that the MC has blond hair and brown eyes, so readers can picture him better. 3 or 4 critters completely missed this, even though it came out in dialogue.

    So, is it important enough to somehow mention again? Some readers like the author to paint a physical picture, others hate it. Do I need to be concerned about readers missing that detail? Would some readers get pissed at me if they pictured this guy a different way throughout the story, then found my detail on a re-read? Rhetorical questions, but if you (or anybody) have any suggestions I’ll gladly listen.

  • One of my beta readers pointed out that at several points in reading they had to go back and hunt down information. When we spoke more about it we decided I need to recap events and situations that had bearing on future events. I seemed to have managed to present all the world information at the same level of importance yet certain facets obviously affect the story more than others.
    So now before I send my MS off to anyone I have to hunt through, mark out the facts that are important and underscore them by giving them more emphasis through wording or repetition.
    I also probably need to better structure my forum posts to be more sensical.

  • […] Physical Space of Words Intresting topic: The physical space of words Once you've read the blog (it says it better than I can), let's discuss. What do you […]

  • What a wonderful post, Carrie. So many great tidbits of advice and information. I have to keep an eye on my own tendency to gloss over important information. It’s not that I haven’t included it, but rather that references I believe are clear wind up being too obscure to folks who aren’t as steeped in the material as I am. One of the reasons why beta readers are so very valuable.

  • David — I remember an author advising that when you think you’re being subtle, you’re actually being obtuse. When you think you’re being blatant, you’re often being subtle. I think because we know what information is important we think it comes across really clearly when it doesn’t as much for the reader because they don’t have our insight.

    John — I think recapping important info is good. Think of it like the end of Usual Suspects — when he’s looking at the bulletin board and the movie actually flashes to various scenes. That’s so we can connect the dots without having to work that hard. Lots of books and movies do this — a character will see something and will mention the importance to make sure the reader gets it (ex: “Fred saw the shoe lying on the ground. He remembered that shoe, how the laces had been untied when Barney ran down the street earlier.” — right there you get the point across that the shoe belongs to Barney… if that’s important – lol).

    Owllady — in my first book I set myself the task of never giving information unless it was critical to the plot. Granted, in revisions I had to flesh things out a bit more per my crit parter suggestions. But that helped me make sure I wasn’t overly fluffing up the manuscript. Personally, I don’t care what a character looks like unless it has bearing on the story. I can’t even remember what some of my *own* characters look like! I’ll flesh out some of the details (a girl might flick a dark ponytail over her shoulder — we know she has long dark hair) but even then I usually pick a few key traits and only use those. And then I make them important, so that maybe the girl with the long hair has a nervous habit of tugging at the ends of her hair.)

    But I also think that characterization *is* needed to move the plot forward. A plot is a character going after a goal and meeting obstacles — who the character is plays into the goal and those obstacles. Who s/he is affects how s/he reacts to those obstacles which creates more obstacles. Finding out the protag played poker in college might seem a random characterization until you realize later that he has the ability to lie without giving a tell.

  • Quillet — in terms of finding the right word: what I tend to do is find those moments in my story that I want to be the most emotional and pivotal. Then I look at all of the descriptions and figure out which are old hand and common — the ones that come to mind because they’re the descriptions everyone uses (my heart pounded, blood roared in my ears, etc). Then I sit back, close my eyes and think about times when I’ve felt the same emotion as my characters — fear, anger, sorrow, etc — and I concentrate on what that *actually* physically feels like. Not how other people describe it, but what it is actually like. Those are the kinds of descriptions I hone in on (true story: a few years ago I was upset and crying on the back porch and a part of my mind thought “what does this feel like, remember it for when you need it in a book.” and sure enough, I ended up using that description for a character later on).

    re: author intrusion: I think every author figures out their own balance between what they consider intrusion and what they don’t. My books are generally first person present (I have some stories first person past) and I know I have some “explaining” that might not seem natural for the character. I just think it needs to not come across as an info dump. For example, in my upcoming short story I have the following lines:

    “… as the Emperor’s Gardener was not only in charge of the lush acres surrounding the palace but of pruning his court as well. This was accomplished through strangulation, and no one had taken to his role as Gardener more fiercely than my father. In his first five years after assuming the title, my father strangled more than five thousand people. It was not enough for him to simply kill, he turned it into a sport as well.”

    That’s not something I really imagine my character thinking about naturally, but I (hope) it works nonetheless. I’ve written it in the same tone and spirit as the rest of the story and I tend to think of stories not just as a reader becoming a voyeur to a character’s life, but as the character sharing their life with the reader which sometimes entails a bit of explanation; to a certain extent, the character is telling their own story, even if they don’t address it as such.

    Hopefully that explanation wasn’t crazy confusing – lol!

  • Megan B.

    Carrie, it’s funny you should say that about remembering your own experience so you could use it in a story later. I was recently involved in a serious car accident (no injuries), and it just so happens I’m also working on a story that involves a car accident. Even in the moments of being shaken up and dealing with the aftermath, I was paying attention to the feelings, sights and smells so I could use them in my story. Most vivid was the stink from the air bags, and I made sure to think carefully about how I would describe that. I wanted to remember my description later when I could no longer smell it for myself.