Someone asked me the other day what I meant by ‘white space’ in my story On Tunnel Mountain. White space of course is a term used in book and magazine layout to describe areas of bare white paper, often denoting a light touch, a little confidence that less is more, gives the marks you do make more weight. In writing and storytelling white space - for me - is the most important aspect of storytelling, it’s where all the magic and power lies, the spell that makes your words live.
Here’s an example of white space from my book ‘The Bear Pit’, where the old hunter stops for a moment as he feeds his hunting dogs in the morning:
“It was silent beyond the meat, the trees still and listening. Only half awake he forgot for a moment just where he was, his thoughts back to another time, beyond this dark Eastern wood, before the blood. He allowed himself to wonder where she was now, a weak thought he knew, an old question, so old it could do no harm to him now. He imagined that warmth for just a moment, wondering if any man felt it now, or if only the cold wormy earth touched her skin, that body so beloved now so long ago. His thoughts drifted on, around time, a merry-go-round, that began to light deep in the dark space of his mind, began to move as it all came back, that music of a past, the sparkle of memory. “Stop,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut, instantly dark again, only the sound of teeth and growl, the offal fighting at his feet.”
What did you see in those words? Could you see the man, smell the meat, see the woods, the woman, hear the dogs? Did you feel anything, did it reminds you of someone, some long lost love, or did you feel nothing at all? Well if something happened it’s nothing I wrote, the words almost devoid of description, white space the art of not what is written but what is unwritten, the left out, the not put in.
I guess as a young writer I thought I had to write it all, every thread and speck of dust, but with time and confidence, this drops away.
When asked to demonstrate this recently, the unsaid, I gave this clip from the film Dom Hemingway as an example. In it Dom Hemingway sees his daughter singing for the first time after having been in prison for twelve years. Nothing is said and yet it takes my breath away, makes me want to cry.