Density isn’t something that often gets talked about, but it is one of the first things a reader notices about a book and one of the last things – sometimes years later – they remember about it.
Writers dream of readers. They picture someone reading what they have written – if the writer is lucky, about lots of readers reading the whole of some book we’ve written.
But readers don’t just read. They’re not robotic text scanners, starting with the first letter top left and ploughing along each line, down down down, until the bottom of the page.
Whenever a reader faces a new page of text, they scan it. They form an instantaneous visual impression of the whole of it. And what they will come away with – the headline – is an answer to the question: How dense is it?
The reader will guestimate how many words are on the page. Not as a cold number but as something to give them a sense of how long that chunk will take to read. It may be that they are enjoying the book a lot, and this is only a flicker of calculation, but they will still take in what faces them.
If nothing strikes them as unusual, they’ll just carry on, word by word, chunk by chunk, from the top left. But if, say, in the middle of an Elmore Leonard novel there were suddenly two consecutive facing pages with no paragraph breaks, no dialogue and (even more weird) no capital letters, the reader would be subconsciously, and perhaps even consciously, freaked out.
I would be prepared to bet this sudden two page lack of paragraphs, dialogue and character and place names never takes place in any of Elmore Leonard’s one hundred plus novels.
Why? Because as a writer he never writes that densely. To do so would take the reader out of Elmore Leonard’s swift, terse, dialogue-driven story-time and into something alien, slower, more expository, without speech.
Elmore Leonard is too good a writer ever to do this by mistake. But many writers, in their first novels, do the equivalent with great frequency. They unwittingly change the density of what they’re writing – they hit a descriptive passage, or a chase sequence, and they stick with it and stick with it, and three quarters of a page has gone by without a paragraph. Then they go into dialogue where people aren’t getting on, they’re snappy and speak in monosyllables – usually to say No. And suddenly, from being very dense, the words on the page start to look like a poem hugging the left margin. Here’s an example. Perhaps the huge paragraph doesn’t go on long enough, but I hope you‘ll get the idea.
The venetian blinds in the whole building hadn’t received a decent clean in at least a couple of decades. But, for some reason, the accretion of dust and dead flies was at its most extreme and most noticeable in the cafeteria. Perhaps because of the proximity of food, stuff that people were going to cram into their mouths, but perhaps also because after they’d done the cramming they would sit there for a minute or two, trying to encourage the stuff to get far enough inside them not to cause an afternoon’s agonising reflux – because they sat for a while and looked, the venetian blinds were something everyone in the department spent an unusual amount of time examining. No-one, and this was certain, wanted the blinds raised because that would mean two dreaded things, it would mean the sunlight would come inside and it would also mean that the officers sitting, cramming or digesting, would be visible from outside. Absolutely none of the officers wanted either of these things to happen. They spent too much of the day on sunblasted display. What they wanted as they ate the stodgy meals that were all the cafeteria provided, was a quiet dark space where they knew they were safe from the public and their unceasing demand for directions to the nearest toilet, pharmacy, massage parlour or police uniform sales outlet – because, sarcastically, they wanted to buy some trousers just like those. And so, it was always at some point explained to new officers, ones that had just joined the job or been transferred, that, yes, the blind were never cleaned and that, no, the blinds must never, ever be raised. What happened on this particular lunchtime, then, was something for which everyone who had come across W. P.C. Abrahams that morning needed to take partial responsibility. For as soon as he entered the room, she made a disgusted sound and closely approached the blinds.
‘Eugh,’ she said.
‘Hey,’ said P.C.Hughes.
‘Digusting,’ said P.C. Abrahams.
She reached for the cord.
‘No!’ said P.C. Smith.
‘We need some light,’ she said.
‘Christ,’ said P.C. Beeton.
‘Newbie,’ explained P.C. Ahmed.
W.P.C. Abrahams began to tug.
‘Stop her!’ shouted P.C. Hughes.
‘They’ll break,’ someone cried out.
‘I hate newbies,’ said P.C. Ahmed.
Finally, P.C. Abrahams took notice.
‘What?’ she asked.
Okay. I exaggerate, but not much.
As you’ll see, the writing here goes from extremely dense to extremely sparse without transition.
Descriptive passages are something you get trapped inside – they’re extensive, claustrophobic.
Dialogue, in complete contrast, is public, open, depthless.
The two kinds of writing look very different on the page, and they read very differently.
You probably got through the dialogue passage of fourteen lines faster than some of the three or four line sentences in the description.
Why does this matter?
It matters because an experienced reader – a professional one – an agent or editor – glancing ahead through your book will figure you in a couple of instants as someone who hasn’t figured out the way to tell a story.
Because in writing like this, you are – it’s on display – a writer who is failing to keep your reader within a certain consistent kind of story-time.
If a writer is inconsistent or has no inner logic in how they relate description to dialogue, it is almost certain that other things in their writing, to do with consistency of tone and of point of view, will also be lacking.
I just said inner logic, to do with dialogue and description – what did I mean by that?
Most novels accelerate. Events come faster, one upon the other, towards their ends – their climaxes.
Also, readers tend to speed up as they are reading novels.
This is particularly true in the case of crime novels where the mystery is close to being solved or the serial killer caught. But it’s also true of literary novels written in extreme forms of English, such as Jame Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
As we get to know all forms of writing, they become easier to read. We are also, humanly, impatient to complete the experience before something interrupts us, or we die.
An experienced reader, aware of density and how it can be controlled, will use it to control pace – both the pace of the action and the pace at which the reader progresses through what, on a kindle, would be 70%, 80% and 90%.
Towards the end of a book, chapters, sections, paragraphs and sentences may all shorten – giving the reader a real rush. The layout of the page itself will make them remember, years later, That was a real page-turner.
Readers take paragraph breaks as rewards. They’re Scooby Snacks that re-energise them. They’re resting points on the climb up the mountain of black and white. Although they are white space, they are still read. They are gaps – important things happen in them.
Here’s one version of a scene:
‘Will you marry me?’ she asked.
‘No,’ she said.
And here’s another:
‘Will you marry me?’ she asked and she said, ‘No.’
Completely different scene, isn’t it? The first takes a beat, the second shows there was no real decision to make.
If the writer wants to pull against the usual acceleration, they may write in longer paragraphs to give the reader the feeling that the idyll reached towards the end of a novel, the happy place the characters have been striving for all along, is satisfyingly there, is somewhere they can comfortably dwell for a while.
This may be only a matter of a page or so, but it will slow the reader down enough – after the two or three-lined paragraph rush – for them to feel, Ah, yes, we’re somewhere solid now, the child is safe, the house is saved, the marriage will last, the vampires are defeated, the puzzle is solved, the abuser is revealed.
EXERCISE: Look back at your story-start. How many white spaces are there, on the page, where are they and what does this mean? Is there a disjunction between thick description and spaced out dialogue?
Every writer has to work out the relationship between their prosy-prose and their speechy-speech. Some almost integrate them; some keep them quite separate; some do their best to integrate them. The reader will pick up on this, with a scan, and may – on this basis – decide whether or not to read a single word.