Tuesday, March 17, 2009


John Cheever’s short story, “Reunion” is a marvel of economy. This story is so tight it squeaks. If you have twelve minutes to spare, check out The New Yorker podcast featuring Richard Ford reading this masterful story and the brief discussion that follows. Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, mentions in the podcast that even though the story is only around 1,000 words, it feels more like a 10,000 word story with 9,000 words left unspoken.

As writers, we are often so concerned with choosing the perfect words and not leaving anything out that the idea of shifting our focus to what can be left out really turns writing on its head. It’s often easier to say everything there is to be said instead of giving the reader a little empty space to piece things together on his own. Cheever reminds us that a story can be defined as much by the written as the unwritten. Empty space doesn’t have to be empty at all.

Space is important in all art forms. Sculptors consider ‘negative space’, or the area surrounding the piece, when they create. In music, the rests are nearly as important as the notes, working in tandem with the beat to create rhythm. Listen to reggae and you’ll know what I mean. In pop and rock, the beat falls on the one and three, whereas in reggae it falls on the two and four. This subtle shift creates space where there usually is none, giving the music an entirely different feel.

Space is crucial in the dramatic arts. Think about spoken dialogue and how the meaning of what is being said changes or is heightened by the use of pauses. When I think of pauses in acting, I immediately think of Christopher Walken in the classic watch scene from PULP FICTION. Notice how he uses space for both dramatic and comedic effect (warning--clip contains offensive language).

Deciding to put space into your writing is easy to do; executing it is another matter. There is danger in trimming too much, leaving the reader feeling confused or feeling that something crucial has been left out. If you’re unsure where to start, try the “10% Rule”—get your story as tight as you can, then trim another 10%. An even better way is to study the stories of masters, like Cheever. With your writer’s eye, pay attention to what has been left out.

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