white space: zooming out in the first person

may we be forgiven spine

spoiler and adult language alert

In A.M. Homes’ recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, in the middle of a psychiatrist-monitored game of puppets between two adults, Harold and his locked-up brother George, the following excerpts from page 174 are separated by white space:

We’re loading our hands with puppets and sometimes throwing them across the room, hurling puppets like epithets.
“Winston Churchill,” George says.
“Charles de Gaulle,” I say.
“Nikita Khrushchev,” he says.
“Barry Goldwater and Roy Cohn,” I say.
“Herbert Hoover,” he says.
“Willy fucking Loman,” I say.

[white space]

Gerwin [the psychiatrist] picks up something that looks like a can of deodorant, holds it high in the air, and sprays–a deafeningly loud BLAST an air horn, like from an eighteen-wheeler.
“TIME OUT!” Gerwin shouts. Both George and I start to say something, but Gerwin interrupts…

Most of us are familiar with the use of white space to denote a change in point of view or a change in scene or to mark the passage of time. In May We Be Forgiven, told in the first person from the point of view of Harold Silver, Homes uses white space in the middle of a scene to mark a change in distance and to provide relief to the reader. First person can sometimes feel claustrophobic, as if our noses are being rubbed in the scene. White space smooths the way for the change in distance of the camera from a close-up to further out. It avoids any jarring to the reader that might have occurred without it. It allows the reader to breathe.

Two paragraphs later and as part of the same scene, Homes again uses white space to zoom out and give the reader a bigger picture:

George is pounding me, whaling away, fists pumping. Gerwin comes closer, but does nothing to stop him. “You fucker, you stinking little fucker, this is only half of what you deserve, you useless piece of shit, you motherfucking…” [ellipses, Homes]

[white space]

I am trying as best I can to guard my face, my ribs, and my balls. From wherever she’s been kept, Tessie is let loose; she runs down to where we are, barking heavily… [ellipses, mine]

Without the technique of white space, readers might experience the shift in distance with a jerk of the camera or they might be momentarily confused by what they’re reading and need to reread.

More on May We Be Forgiven, which I loved.

may we be forgiven pages 174-175

17 thoughts on “white space: zooming out in the first person

  1. I never really paid attention to the use of white spaces in my reading. I am intrigued though as it seems a very effective way to denote small “breathers” between events that occur throughout one single scene. I like this idea and will be playing around with it a bit in my own writing. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! 🙂


  2. My daughter won’t read anything written in first person, but she can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the claustrophobia. I like the use of white space but had never thought of it as a place for the reader to rest. I just babble on beyond the subject. Yeah, that isn’t working well :-). It’s also interesting to see writers adapting cinematic techniques to the written word. Sometimes it’s tolerable for the private experience with a book, sometimes it can drive you right up the wall, as in Wolfe’s Back To Blood. Exhausting.

    Thanks for highlighting a softer, more gentle use of white space.


      • Hi Cynthia. Obviously, this is an excellent post because it’s been haunting me. As much as I love the use of white space as a resting place, would it translate into eBook publishing? There are so many formatting errors in that field, both indie and trad, I wonder if the reader would boil with fury at what they perceive as bad formatting, rather than enjoy the resting place.


        • Cyd, yes, my agent reads my manuscripts on an e-reader (and sends them to editors who often read on e-readers) so one thing I’ve already had to deal with is the practice of including a mark of some sort if a page break corresponds with a space break (white space). On an e-reader you don’t have the same breaks. So if you format for the computer but read on an e-reader, you have marks to identify some white space and not others. It’s maddening. I can see how white space in the world of e-reading could produce fury rather than peace. We will need more thought and discussion on this one… Of course one answer would be to mark each use of white space with three bullet points–but that perhaps defeats the point of white space–and we know it would drive Richard crazy…


          • LOL So much re-inventing of the wheel that needs to be done. It is frustrating, but out of that frustration (I hope) a new burst of creativity is defined.


  3. Very interesting post! I’ve never read a book that used white space this way. I’ve been thinking a lot about negative space though, and how it gives breathing room in art – relaxes the mind somehow. I like the idea of giving a reader pause this way in first-person writing. I recently read Nicole Krauss’ Man Walks Into a Room (all in first person) and found it claustrophobic at times. I wonder what it would have felt like with some white space? But then, I also wonder whether creating a claustrophobic feeling is part of the writer’s intention, particularly Krauss with her subject of memory loss.


  4. I recently noted a white space break in the middle of a scene in the memoir The Glass Castle. Admittedly the scene broke there and there was the transition sentence “On Saturday . . . ” before it resumed. But the word transition was enough. The white space was done for emphasis, I think. I see it used that way more in creative nonfiction than memoir, but I like it anywhere—readers can make the leap. A peeve of mine is dingbats in the white space: bullets, philodendron leaves, chuffy pigs—distracting, ugly, and unnecessary.


  5. Good to hear people’s thoughts on those distracting marks. Of course, I use them on my manuscript when I come to the bottom of the page if a section should end there, but I always wondered if it would automatically deleted out when published. The answer: I guess some do and some don’t.


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