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From the Front Lines: Why emotional white space is part of good writing

Show, don’t tell (and tell and tell).

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Have you ever had a really bad argument with a good friend? One in which you feel the need to explain yourself, over and over and over again? I had one of those recently, and I think I have diagnosed the problem: neither one of us trusted the other to understand where we were each coming from. So we kept on talking over each other, becoming more and more frustrated until we were both in tears.

Don’t worry! The thing ended okay. We left a little space in the video chat, in which we both breathed at each other, and then we revisited the thing between us from another angle. Weird that actually worked, but unpacking the why of it is not for this column.

So, lady, you are saying, what in the boondocks does this have to do with writing? Well. I’ve been thinking a lot about how badly we humans feel the need to explain things to each other. How sometimes, our need to get the person on the receiving end to meet us someplace we can live with, sometimes ends up driving the other person away. And that, my friends, is what happens in some books or essays you want to put down: the reader feels untrustworthy, as if the author feels they must explain every nuance to the reader.

This makes for both a stressful writing experience and a singularly awful reading experience. And it can undermine even our best work. But it all comes from a very human place: Writers worry that our readers won’t pick up what we’re putting down.

Just like it played out in my conversation with my friend, writers sometimes don’t trust our readers enough. And, in turn, the reader feels a break in confidence, a breach in contract between the reader and the story.

Two examples from books I’ve edited recently come to mind. In one, a woman who had dealt with the drug and alcohol addiction of two of her children and the self-harming actions of a third wrote riveting passages about the nights she spent awake, wondering if her children were going to be OK. And in nearly every such scene there was a sentence that began, “I felt.” When the reader comes across this after reading the scenes, we feel slapped across the face with a wet fish: We’ve been trundling along very happily in the world of significant prose and then dumped without ceremony into the very boring world of someone telling us what we’ve just experienced. “I know!” we want to bark at the narrator. “You just told us!” We been through the experience with the writer. He or she has done a great job of putting us in her shoes, so the “I felt” is pedantic.

In another book, the writer had a habit of describing both people and places with such color and grace that we could feel we knew the characters ourselves, or were in the scene with him. One could smell the fall leaves in the town square and see the people crossing the avenues. The drunk, abusive stepfather loomed large in our heads, as did the movie-star-like hero in the form of a Big Brother. And then the writer would say something like, “It was beautiful,” or “He was handsome.”

In each of these examples, the writer is trying to make sure that the reader is solidly on board. It is sheer insecurity. Every writer can do without it. (And, I should say, even the most seasoned writers can make this mistake; it is our natural default to want our readers to be “with” us.)

In the case of my two writers, they were reaching for adjectives after the fact. (In most cases, writers reach for adjectives first. This is lazy – I say this in the most loving of fashions.) Consider that your reader is an average human being with feelings and their own experiences to draw from. They will, most of the time, react best to your taking them right into the scene with you. They can access their feelings just as well as you can; the odds are good that, once they are with you, they will have similar feelings to you. You just have to trust that they will get there.

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My writers had done the hard work, and then they felt the need to just make absolutely sure the painting was attached securely to the wall with one more nail, when the picture hanger they’d provided was totally adequate.

Let’s try a little exercise, shall we? Recently we got Huckleberry, our dog, a new outdoor dog bed. It is one of those pieces of stretchy cloth strung over a metal frame, so that if he wants to lie outside but does not want to get his delicate little body all grassy (I’m telling you, this is a thing), he can do so. Picture a mini-trampoline, I guess. Plus, the air circulates underneath him, keeping him cool, blah blah blah.

Huckleberry has never seen such a thing before. First, he eyeballed us. And then, he circled the thing, smelling its entire frame. Then, he put one front paw on it and took it off. Then, he put the other front paw on it and took that off. Eventually, he got around to putting both front paws on it, and he quickly took them both off.

Do I need a line here telling you that Huckleberry felt apprehensive? Or that he is a suspicious dog? No. No, I do not.

Even though this column is exactly about not saying too much, I confess to you that every fiber in my being wants to yell at you, “I’M TELLING YOU, HE IS A BONA FIDE WEIRDO.” But you will have already gotten there by yourselves, and so I must exercise a little restraint.

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Restraint makes writing powerful. Like white space in an advertisement or in a piece of visual art, like the rests in music, it helps the reader to pay attention to what is there. Most importantly, letting the reader fill in little gaps on their own, with their own emotions or with their own experiences, helps them to feel even more invested in your story or your essay or your poem.

I’ll leave you with one more example. I’ve been taking some art classes online with Puño, a graphic designer and visual artist. “Don’t draw everything,” he said. “Simply suggest and draw what’s necessary, so we understand what we are looking at…It’s daring to leave [things] out.”

So go on. Dare to trust your reader. The experience, on both ends, will be worth the restraint.

Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.

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