Take a fresh look at your draft by studying the space between chapters. If your chapter breaks create an unpleasant surprise, you’ve got them in the wrong places.
Chapters are a fundamental unit in long-form story-telling and how you structure them should be anything but random. How long will the chapters in your book be? Will you end with cliffhangers? How many scenes will you include in each?
However you formulate your story arc and your chapters, great storytelling relies on solid structuring. Structuring is about organization and how you package and deliver your ideas to transmit them to readers. Missing information and oddly connected sentences and paragraphs won’t do. You need flow.
You also need great flow between chapters.
A big part of this flow comes from the pauses you craft between chapters. If you do it right, your white space will say loads and give the content of your text more meaning.
The rhythm of your story
A chapter break means it’s time to wrap up and move on.
The white space means that the final words have been said, at least for the moment. This allows conclusions to be drawn and, from them, new speculations. It’s the point at which readers summarize what they’ve read.
You want your white space to say volumes. Why break here?
Of course, white space doesn’t say anything. It’s blank after all. But that’s the point — no words, so readers can have a reset.
But, in the best stories, readers fill in the space with their own impressions, thoughts, and ideas. They might even put the book down for a while to think on what they’ve read.
Of course, readers won’t know the true nature of the white space until the next chapter starts. It is the start of the next chapter that completes the definition of the shift. Now readers have the pleasure of knowing where the story goes.
Great books often put a chapter break right in the action, or use it to create a withholding — you’ll keep turning pages if your curiosity has been piqued and you have to learn where this is going. But, maybe the author transports you to a new storyline, detours to a subplot, or inserts a flashback. You may have to wait… and this is the power of this shift.
Whether the motion is physical or psychological, the shift should intensify a reader’s interest in the story. Your chapter white spaces act like catapults, getting the reader from one chapter to the next and chunk by chunk through the story.
These spaces and pauses are a big part of the rhythm of your story — the silences and transitions are spotlights on the action and a promise of information.
What does your white-space story rhythm sound like?
Rehearse the narrative of your white spaces
A great way to take a fresh look at your story is to read out what the white spaces say. What happens during the white space?
Why do you pick up the story again where you do? There must be good reason — you shouldn’t just fly about in time and space for the fun of it. It should be a productive jump in terms of moving the story forward.
You can also use this rehearsal to check your chapter openings and make sure readers can understand easily where the story has gone. Readers must land on their feet, so to speak. Don’t let them stumble or fall, wondering where they are or who is speaking.
In the bigger picture, how are you using chapter splits to build connections between your story parts?
White space is a way to upgrade or downgrade the “screen time” of different topics and details and can define what you are keeping off the page. Should you move some of your expository text into your white space — meaning cutting it out and making it implied? Or just referring to what happened in the interval in the next chapter?
Conversely, did you inadvertently slip something integral to your story into your white space?
Mute white spaces
Arbitrary reasons for chapter breaks won’t cut it with readers. Because all your chapters are 3,500 words and it was time for a new chapter is not a good enough reason to create a split. Yes, perhaps in a first draft, but never in a polished one.
If your white spaces surprise readers in an unpleasant way, or are mute, you have them in the wrong places or your story doesn’t have enough structure to support them. Look at both your text and your breaks and make some changes.
Edit with creativity and purpose — you are developing your story. Feel free to move chapter splits. Trim and add to make them all pop.
Think about your white spaces as carefully as the contents of your chapters. Get them in exactly the right places, write superb text on either side of them, and crank up the volume of these silent but powerful features of your book.
You can keep track of your white spaces in your head, on paper, in a spreadsheet, or in story-editing software like Fictionary. However you do it, give these blank spaces all the attention they deserve and you’ll create some of your best moments for your readers.
Dawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book, Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.