More Than White Space: Leaving Room for the Reader

“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

–Samuel Johnson,
who wrote the first dictionary and whose critical work brought Shakespeare back from the literary afterlife.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Robert Heinlein wrote what was then termed as junior novels but would be known today as YA. Thin, readable, and highly action-oriented, Heinlein’s sci-fi YAs were lean, mean story machines.  From page one, bam! you were immersed in story, dropped into a futuristic setting, details of which emerged on a need to know basis.  No backstory. No info dump. Just the characters and you.  At every science fiction workshop I’ve attended, the instructor has told the students that Heinlein was the model for world building.

More than setting, though, you the reader were dropped into the middle of the characters’ lives, with relationships fully formed, motivations undefined but obvious, and personality quirks evident from the first lines of snappy dialogue.  Just as he drops you into setting, Heinlein drops the reader you into character and expects you to figure it out. It is a technique similar to visual artists who manipulate the white space of a work or a book designer who understands that where print isn’t on a page is equally important to where print is.  These artists left room for the eye on the page. When I write, I try to emulate both Heinlein’s story techniques and the techniques of the artist, hoping to leave room for the reader among the words on the page, because the story doesn’t exist in the written word but in the mind and imagination of the reader.

Here’s an example from my own experience: Summer 1977. Southgate Twin theatre, Battlefield Parkway, Fort Oglethorpe, GA. A group of teens sits in a sold out theatre munching dollar popcorn and watching for the first time what will become the world’s most famous yellow scroll announce that Star Wars has begun. And what is the first thing it tells us? We’re watching Episode Four.

Wha–? Episode four? What happened to the first three episodes? (we found out twenty years later, and we can debate as to whether or not it was worth the wait). That question was quickly followed by others. Who’s this Darth Vader guy? What’s a Jedi? The Force? A seven-foot walking carpet? Despite our questions, the story told us what we needed to know when we needed to know it. We left the theatre having enjoyed ourselves, our brains popping with unanswered questions. Like all fan boys, we huddled together, using our collective grey matter to puzzle out possibilities. I still remember reading a fan magazine where the writer suggested that Vader could be Luke’s father. Nah. Couldn’t be—Obi Wan said he was dead, and Jedi never lie. Right? Right?

Maybe George Lucas read the same magazine. Maybe he had the idea that Star Wars was always Darth Vader’s story. Maybe it was still cooking like story soup in the back of Lucas’ mind. Either way, I’m glad he didn’t tell us everything in Episode Four. Maybe it’s just me, but a story is more enjoyable when the movie or book asks me to bring my imagination to the experience.

That’s why you won’t find much exposition in Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun and probably not much more in the forthcoming Shadow on the Sun. I want readers to bring their imaginations along so that the stories that exist in their heads is far richer, far more imaginative, and therefore, far more totally EPIC that anything I could write.

David Macinnis Gill is the author of Soul Enchilada, Black Hole Sun, and the forthcoming Invisible Sun, all from Greenwillow Books. His short stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Crescent Review and Writer’s Forum. He is the Past President of ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) and an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

David has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schleper, high school teacher, and college professor. Currently, he is an associate professor of English education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family, plus fourteen fish, and two rescued dogs.