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When Less Really Is More: What Comics Can Teach Novelists

Consider the Comic where what’s not on the page is as important as what is. So says comic artist and writer Scott McCloud in his deceptively simple book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

In the space between panels, the comic writer can move us across time, five minutes, five years, five centuries. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” She can also move the reader in space–across the room, across town, across the universe–with a few words and an image or two: Tintin conferring with Tibetan monks, say, followed by Tintin in the Himalayas.

That space between panels, that white space, cartoonists call "the gutter."

Our brains are wired to fill in the white space, the gutter, with our own meaning to form a coherent narrative. In Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet, those two Tintin panels above are actually separated by many panels. I put them side by side. Very likely, you constructed a narrative that bridged the gutter. Maybe something along the lines of Tintin confers with monks. The monks tell him the stolen treasure, the bad guy, the kidnapped girl, is in the mountains. This cloth will help him. Tintin sets out.

In the gutter between these images, it is the viewer, McCloud notes, who decides who gets axed and where. The viewer provides the blood. Which makes for more reader engagement.

Movies may be as much or more responsible for developing white space as a means of storytelling. When at the end of Gone with the Wind Rhett Butler carries Scarlett O’Hara up Tara’s stairs, we fill in what comes next. It depends on the viewer as to whether what comes next is romantic love, torrid sex, rape or a strange hybrid.

In fact, we may feel bored when the comic artist, the director, the author, is too genial a host, grips our elbow and escorts us up the stairs, down the hall, opens the bedroom door, and, well, I’ll let you fill in the details.*

Aren’t you glad I finally let go of your elbow and let you have some fun?

Novelists use white space in similar fashion. They move us across time and space. They invite us to fill in the story, which keeps us reading. They also use white space to heighten emotion and even to speed up the pace.

Novelist Dan Chaon is a master of the gutter. In his novel You Remind Me of Me, we stand with protagonist, Jonah, who at six, had his face nearly bitten off by the family dog, was abused and neglected by his family, and is now finally an adult on the hunt for his own home, an apartment. As reader, we long for Jonah to find relief, to find a real home. Here is Jonah scouting his first apartment.

The woman [the potential landlady] paused grimly. Her name, he would later learn, was Mrs. Marina Orlova, and she had grown up in Siberia. Later she would tell him that she loathed the American custom of constantly smiling: “They are like chimpanzees,” she said, in her bitterly exclamatory voice. She grimaced, baring her teeth grotesquely. “Eee!” she said. “I smile at you. It is repulsive.”

But now she only looked at his smile with a sigh of disapproval, and he felt terribly self-conscious. “You wait,” she said finally, “I will get keys.”

While she goes off to get the keys, dread accumulates in the reader’s bones as the series of pejorative words, “grimly” “Siberia,” the landlady’s “bitterly, exclamatory voice,” the sound of “Eee,” in our ears, leads us to expect the very worst. The apartment, we come to believe, is likely to be a horror show. Chaon leaves a space break, a gutter in comics lingo, and our dread only deepens. On the other side of the white space, Chaon skips the door opening and the slow reveal. He puts us inside the apartment.

The efficiency surprised him. It reminded Jonah a little of a motel room, and he loved it immediately.

The reader exhales in surprise and relief. Jonah is not doomed! (Although, trust me, he is.) His new home is clean, orderly. He can make a new life! That little white space, into which the reader expands his worries, serves to heighten and deepen reader relief.

It works in reverse, too. In Antonya Nelson’s Bound, Nelson uses the gutter to ratchet and ratchet again reader anxiety. Protagonist Cattie, who has been through some things, is at the end of a chapter when she thinks,

“….[who was Cattie], who was this pot to name the kettle black? And this was the small vacillating space that roused a flutter in Cattie’s esophagus, just behind her ribs and in her throat, trapped moth, powdery wings.”

We end the chapter in a semi-anxious state. Will Cattie be okay? The fragility of the moth’s “powdery wings,” suggests a vulnerability…

We cross the white space to the next chapter, which begins, The Witchita serial killer was back. Now we’re really worried. Nelson uses this white space not just to heighten emotion but also to build a killer pace—who will not read on after that last sentence?

Start looking for white space and you’ll see it everywhere–and deployed for so many effects. You might even think some of a writer’s best work lies in the gutter, between the words.


*Credit to Michelle Hoover and her workshop “The Art of the Scene” for the host metaphor.

Originally appeared in Dead Darlings.

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