I still remember reading The Da Vinci Code. I had it on CD, and on my commutes from San Francisco to Stanford, I’d listen to an hour at the beginning and end of each work day. The pace was unrelenting, with each chapter’s end an uptick in mystery or action, and by the time I was two-third of the way through the book, I was burnt out on the fervor, even as I loved the story line. I needed a little more air in the text to be able to stay with it.
Why We Need to Give our Readers Breathing Space
When a book – or even a story, poem, or essay – is too intense for too long, most readers will get fatigued. They may find that they simply don’t find that level of constant intensity believe, or they may simply feel the readerly equivalent of the adrenal fatigue we feel when our daily lives our too stressful.
So we need to give them space by modulating the pacing of our work, incorporating moments of respite, and allowing for peaks and ebbs in the intensity and tone of our writing. These changes and places of adjustment act as literary rest stops for the reader, giving him a space in which to catch his breath and think about the work anew.
Some Ways to Leave Air in our Texts
There are as many ways to give a reader space to breath in a text as there are pieces of writing, but here are a few of my favorites:
- Intersperse comedy with your tragedy or vice versa. Nothing brings the intensity of a tragedy into full relief like good humor. I’m not talking jokes here or self-deprecation necessarily, although those can work. But rather, I’m suggesting we lighten the tone of our darker works with a humorous scene or word play or even a bit of deathbed laughter.
- Build in literary places of respite. Maybe your character has a love of nature that has sustained her through hard times. Build in moments in nature to give her rest while the reader catches a breath, too. Or maybe there are quiet moments in even the hardest memoir – an afternoon listening to music, a day at the amusement park, a perfect dinner before the horrible climax. Give the reader those moments, too, and don’t taint them with the hard that is to come. That’ll show up soon enough.
- Use white space. Just giving the reader more room on the page – smaller paragraphs, more chapter breaks, gaps between hard scenes – can lift the tone of a book a bit.
The goal here is not to alter the overall tone, theme, or purpose of the work, but instead, we are seeking to help our reader have space to move around in our writing so that they can see the full-color version of the vision we are sharing with them.
What pieces of writing do you know that are so unrelenting in their telling that you felt beaten down by them? And which were intense but gave you space to breath?