Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Making the White Space Talk

Years ago, reading late one night in my college dorm room, I approached the end of Washington Square by Henry James, totally captivated by its drama of love and betrayal played out in an austere brick mansion on New York's Washington Square, only a few blocks from where I now live. That the novel's end was near I knew both from the dwindling number of pages I had left to read and from the brooding sense in every sentence that the final curtain was about to fall.

But how would it fall, exactly? The only way to discover that was to read to the bitter end, which I did, barely breathing. Morris makes his final appeal for Catherine's love, but she has seen the cad beneath his gentleman's façade, and she refuses him. Cursing, he stomps out of the house, leaving Catherine's aunt Mrs. Penniman bewildered. And Catherine, what does she do?

Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again—for life, as it were.

I will never forget the chill that those final five short words gave me: "for life, as it were"—brrrr! In them I could see Catherine's loveless, sexless life stretching out ahead of her, long dull days, weeks, months, and years passing in repressed and lonely silence. No fireworks, no trumpets end this tragedy. Instead James gives us a slow, horrifying fade out into a wasted life, a twilight crawl to old age and death.

Yet as I sat at my desk bemused, looking out over the dark and quiet campus, the book still in my hand, I made what for me was an amazing discovery: Henry James had shown me Catherine's future life not in what he wrote, not in the black ink that his pen and then the printer's press put on the paper, but in the disciplined restraint that revealed all he chose not to describe. Where did I first see Catherine's sterile spinsterhood? In the white space beneath her story's five final words.

I got such pleasure from James telling me so much by telling me so little that in the decades since I've made it a habit to look and listen for all that the white space in a book has to say. The more I think about white space, the more I see the crucial role it plays in writing.

We take for granted much of a book's white space: margins top and bottom, right and left; paragraph indents; section breaks; extra space given to chapter-opening pages; extra space at the end of chapters left blank. Long paragraphs make a text look dense and dark, a danger that did not scare David Hume who often weights his On Human Nature and the Understanding with paragraphs thirty and forty lines long. The standard treatment of dialogue—indent and new line for each new speaker—can do much to lighten a page:

"Feel my forehead," she said all of a sudden.
"Feel it. Just feel it once."
I felt it. I didn’t feel anything, though.
"Does it feel very feverish?" she said.
"No. Is it supposed to?"
"Yes, I'm making it. Feel it again."
I felt it again, and I still didn't feel anything, but I said, "I think it's starting to now."

                                       The Catcher in the Rye

White space at the end of a chapter pauses the book's narrative flow, allowing readers a brief rest. At the same time the white space points readers to the next chapter in such a way that, once rested, they'll gladly take up their journey once again. Thomas Hardy ends chapter after chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge with sentences that suspend for a moment the characters' forward motion, preparing readers for a new beginning:

Extinguishing the last candle, and lowering the flap of the tent, she left it and drove away.

                                        Chapter One

Next day he started, journeying southwestward, and did not pause, except for night's lodging, till he reached the town of Casterbridge, in a far distant part of Wessex.

                                        Chapter Two

With this they descended out of the fair, and went onward to the village, where they obtained a night's lodging.

                                        Chapter Three

In writing Ray Charles: Man and Music, my biography of the great musician, I purposely gave many of my chapter-ending sentences a forward motion similar to Hardy's:

The young man who stepped on the train in Seattle as RC Robinson stepped off the train in Los Angeles as Ray Charles.

…from Houston the tour headed up US 75 for a return booking, January 15, at the Empire Room in Dallas.

Ray went south for a September weekend at the Royal Peacock Club in Atlanta and, with that done, he headed to New York and his first recording session at Atlantic Records.

A book's final sentence, like James' ending of Washington Square, has the double challenge of concluding both the last chapter and the whole book in such a way that readers can fill the last white space with anything they imagine might happen to the characters once the book is over. Theodore Dreiser's poignant ending of Jennie Gerhardt reminds me of James' Washington Square ending, but Dreiser adds to the mystery with a question mark:

Before her was stretching a vista of lonely years down which she was steadily gazing. Now what? She was not so old yet. There were those two orphan children to raise. They would marry and leave after a while, and then what? Days and days of endless reiteration, and then—?

Dreiser uses a closing door to end both The "Genius" and An American Tragedy:

Great art dreams welled up in his soul as he viewed the sparkling deeps of space. "The sound of the wind—how fine it is tonight," he thought.
Then he quietly went in and closed the door.

                                       The "Genius"

The small company, minus Russell, entered the yellow, unprepossessing door and disappeared.

                                       An American Tragedy

Somerset Maugham, in contrast, has his Of Human Bondage characters step out into the white space of London's midday bustle, the bright sunlight adding a cheerful note:

He smiled and took her hand and pressed it. They got up and walked out of the gallery. They stood for a moment at the balustrade and looked at Trafalgar Square. Cabs and omnibuses hurried to and fro, and crowds passed, hastening in every direction, and the sun was shining.

Perhaps my favorite book-ending white space follows the last lines of The Brothers Karamazov:

"Well, let us go! And now we go hand in hand."

"And always so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!" Kolya cried once more rapturously, and once more the boys took up his exclamation: "Hurrah for Karamazov!"

Washington Square's final white space made and still makes me shudder; Karamazov's final white space gave and still gives me space to cheer life, hope, and love with Alyosha and his exuberant acolytes.
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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.