The Power of the Line Break—Crafting the Visual Page Part 1
Updated: Jan 18
Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Something writers tend not to think about is how their text appears in the novel. I'm not talking about prose here, making words flow smoothly off the reader's tongue. I'm not talking about show, don't tell. I'm not talking about diction or any other literary device.
I'm speaking literally.
When a reader opens your book and looks at the formatted blocks of text without reading the words, how does your writing look?
Fast-paced with lots of dialogue?
Daunting, with heady, long blocks of text and large paragraphs?
A line break is a powerful tool that writers can use to control the visual page and create an immersive experience for readers. By carefully crafting the placement of line breaks, writers can guide readers through a text and create a unique reading experience.
In this series of blog posts (just two actually. A duology of blog posts), we will explore the power of the "break" and how it can be used to craft the visual page.
And in Part 2, we will look at an example of how line breaks (or lack thereof) have been used effectively in literature. So if you're ready to learn more about this fascinating topic, read on!
Stop rolling your eyes. Then read on anyway.
Does this Matter?
Now, most people will probably say not really.
For the most part, it has become common knowledge that shorter paragraphs and more dialogue are best bets for modern readers' sensibilities. And I'm not going to disagree (though in Part 2, I present a case study that successfully does the opposite.)
But for the most part, the average reader is a product of the technological era, meaning they can only handle a little input at once. The average paragraph continues to shorten.
I'm a believer in holistic book writing—to make myself sound like a crystal sniffer for a moment.
But all I mean by that is:
The novel is one work of art. From cover design to layout, to typesetting, to editing, to writing and outlining. It is ALL your book. A reflection of you.
Some writers think that only the book's inside is theirs, and everything else is merely marketing.
And yes, I won't deny that third-party players have much to do with this. Authors need those outside professionals, sure. But I see a need in the future for authors (or creative cooperatives) to take more control in how they...
You know what? This is way off topic.
Where were we?
Oh yeah, the visual page.
Here are a few ways to consciously craft the visual page to help tell your stories.
Lines that Need Emphasis
There are certain lines in a piece of writing that need to be emphasized to create the desired effect. This can be done by using a line break.
When you want a line to stand out, giving it its own makes sense. I edit these into stories a lot at the end of chapters. You would be amazed at how one simple edit can change the impact of an entire chapter. Let's look at one such edit I made in FFF author Nick Nikolov's horror sci-fi Worldender (affiliate link).
The sun was high in the sky, so her skin dried almost immediately. She let light warm her body. The pleasant feeling was soon cut short by the primal fear of standing in the open, vulnerable to predators. With a quick step, she retreated into the shadowed entrance.
With a line break...
The sun was high in the sky, so her skin dried almost immediately. She let light warm her body. The pleasant feeling was soon cut short by the primal fear of standing in the open, vulnerable to predators.
With a quick step, she retreated into the shadowed entrance.
Notice how in the second example, the line break gives the character's final retreat at the end of the scene a finality that the first does not.
The last line in the first example is just a part of the paragraph. It doesn't hold any greater weight in the story than all the words that come before it. In the first example, the thing that will be remembered most by the reader is the line "vulnerable to predators" because it is the sentence that creates the most vivid image and is evocative of some emotion.
By singling out the last sentence with a line break, it gets emphasized. It becomes the thing that readers will remember. Because it is a weaker image than the line before, I didn't want it to get dwarfed by the one beside it.
I needed the image of her retreating into the dark cave to be the thing the reader focused on and remembered. That minor edit was all that was needed to help move the plot forward more definitively at the end of the scene.
White Space is Mental Space
A line break forces the reader to take a mental beat before moving on to the following line. This way, they clear their mind of what was just read, so they notice what you want them to.
It is like a comedian who pauses to wait for the clapping to end before moving on to the next joke. If he did not, the audience might miss the beginning of it.
Give your reader a chance to stop thinking about your first point before moving on to the next. If they only need a beat, create a line break. Add a scene break if they need a much longer beat because you're making a more strenuous logical jump.
Scene breaks give even more space and allow the reader time to pause and clear, but you are also asking them to reflect on what they have just read. Chapter breaks act the same way. Keep this idea at the forefront of your mind when planning your scenes and chapters.
What is it that you are asking your reader to reflect on?
Answer: the most critical parts of the plot.
The best places for chapter or scene breaks are those that reveal something important to the plot. Because these are the points that you want your reader to absorb and remember.
End the chapter just as this moment happens. Like....immediately.
Introduce the antagonist? Great! End the chapter as soon as he says hello.
This is why you destroy the pacing and suspense of your story by going on a little too long. Sometimes it is a fine line between hitting those moments and passing them by. If you dramatically introduce your antagonist and then show him/her having dinner and introducing himself to everyone in the room, talking to the protagonist about his new business venture, etc. before ending the scene, you have missed that mark.
The line/page break is one of a writer's most basic and versatile tools. By creating a whitespace on a page, we can direct a reader's attention to specific content, create a hierarchy of ideas, and improve readability.
When used judiciously, line breaks can be incredibly powerful. Too many line breaks, however, and a page starts to feel choppy and like there is something off with the pacing—which can be just as off-putting as no line breaks at all.
The key is to strike a balance. Use line breaks to create visual interest and variety, but don't overdo it.
The Modern Reader's Shrinking Attention Span
In the age of social media, the internet, and constant stimulation, it's no wonder that our attention spans are shrinking. We are used to seeing quick snippets of information that we can digest in a matter of seconds. This is why the line break is so important—it forces the reader to pause and take in the information on the page, slowing down their pace and allowing them to really think about what they're reading.
But it can also give readers permission to get distracted. And that is a good thing.
A contemporary reader may get scared off if they look at a page in your book that seems like work. You may not mind that these types of people don't want to read your book. And that's fine too, I don't blame you. But most genre writers are looking for their books to be as accessible as possible.
Line breaks give readers road signs when they need to return to the story after answering that text message or retweeting a funny meme. It's just the way the world is now, and as much as I don't like it, it's not gonna change any time soon. You need to accept it.
It will be easier for them to find the spot they left off. Easier for them to slip back into the story. Easy for them to come back to you.
Creating Patterns & Rhythm
Using the natural beats of space, line breaks, and deliberate punctuation can create an extra layer of rhythm to your story aided by visual patterns.
By breaking up the text into smaller chunks, the reader can see the piece's overall structure more clearly. This can help create a sense of flow or rhythm within the piece. Using different lengths and spacing between lines allows the author to control how the reader's eye moves across the page.
You are forcing them to stop and start when you want them to.
Have you ever heard the advice to let someone read your manuscript back to you in a monotone voice to see if you were able to capture the rhythm and tone you were going for?
Well, it is excellent advice, but apart from that, this is how you can create that rhythm and tone in the first place.
As an example, I wrote a short story, 'Todd,' for The Beginning & End of All Things (affiliate link) anthology. And I didn't want there to be any dialogue in the story at all until the end.
But a story with no dialogue means that the whole thing could become a single block of text if I wasn't careful. The visual page would be boring.
So instead, I chose to employ a pattern in my writing. Granted, by the time editing was complete, the pattern was torn to shreds, but basically, I decided to write the whole thing in this format:
Long paragraph, long paragraph, short paragraph.
Long paragraph, long paragraph, single line.
Now, "long paragraph" meant anything 3 lines or longer. "short paragraph" meant 2 lines usually. And "single line" were...well...one line, but I tried to keep them as short as possible, single words if I could.
The story is a slow burn with a dark Walking Dead-type tone. I didn't want the pacing in 'Todd' to be too fast. So I made sure to add only as few line breaks as possible. Just enough to emphasize important beats and give the whole thing a feel of a deep bass rhythm in the background.
That may or may not have come across. I aim high and, like everyone else, often fail to meet the standard I have set for myself.
You can be judge. I posted 'Todd' a few weeks ago because I often discuss it. Go there and tell me if I'm talking out of my ass, up to you.
This was a quick look at how crafting the visual page can be an essential part of the writing process. Something that many writers never think about at all.
In the next part, Giving You Readers "Feels"—Crafting the Visual Page Part 2: Case Study, we will look at the book Blindness (affiliate link) by Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, José Saramago.
Saramago takes this idea to another level by ensuring every paragraph and line break aid in developing his theme. He takes the reader on a wild and horrifying ride from beginning to end.
I hope you got something out of this post. Not that guy, you. Yes, YOU. Tell me if YOU got anything out of this. I need to know this for....my research.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.