The Magic of Layout in Your Story

by Marg McAlister

 

"The Magic of Layout..."???

Okay... "magic" might seem a bit over the top when you first read this article title. But believe me, although it doesn't involve incantations or bubbling cauldrons, careful selection of layout does work magic on the reader.

Picture book authors understand this (as do parents and others who read a lot of picture books aloud). By moving a sentence - or even a word - to the next line, the author can add a lot of impact to the text.

When a word or sentence is moved to a new paragraph, the reader automatically pauses before reading it. This might be a physical pause, if the story is being read aloud, or it might be a mental pause. This can create tension, or set the reader up for a humorous twist, or add emphasis to one word alone.

Let me demonstrate.

TAKE ONE  

Ben hauled himself over the sill and dropped silently into the room. He moved to one side, away from the window, and waited several minutes while his eyes adjusted to the dark. Objects in the room gradually began to take shape, defined by the bright moonlight. Ben mentally traced the path he would tread to get to the door; he didn't want to bump into anything, or send something crashing to the floor. Just as he was about to move, he heard a sound. A quiet sound... a sort of whispery scrape. No, not a scrape exactly. He listened harder; all senses on alert. Then there was a creak... and another. He realised it was coming from the hall outside. Someone was making an effort to move quietly. Ben took a few quick steps to one side, and crouched in a corner, half behind a chair. Then the door swung open and a figure was outlined in the dim light cast by the low-watt bulb in the hallway. His heart thumping, Ben exhaled slowly. It was McInerny in his dressing gown and slippers.


The above is written in one 'solid' paragraph. It tells the story, but it fails to take advantage of the opportunities offered to build suspense. The pacing seems rushed; the tension doesn't really build.

We can change this simply by changing the layout. Sometimes, you will have to change the sentence itself to achieve the effect you want. You might have to shorten it, or use a sentence fragment (these often do a better job of reflecting someone's thoughts than complete sentences). You might find that you get the effect you want by putting a word or phrase in a paragraph on its own.

Let's experiment:

TAKE TWO  

Ben hauled himself over the sill and dropped silently into the room. He moved to one side, away from the window, and waited several minutes while his eyes adjusted to the dark.

Objects in the room gradually began to take shape, defined by the bright moonlight. Ben scanned the room, mentally tracing the path he would follow to get to the door. He didn't want to bump into anything, or send something crashing to the floor.

Just as he was about to move, he heard something.

A quiet sound... a sort of whispery scrape.

No, not a scrape exactly. He listened harder; all senses on alert.

A creak. Then another.

Shuffle...creak.

It was coming from the hall outside, and getting closer. Someone was making an effort to move quietly.

Ben slid a few steps sideways into the corner, and crouched, half behind a chair. He shouldn't be immediately visible if anyone came in.

The door swung open. A figure was outlined in the dim light cast by the low-watt bulb out in the hallway. Ben exhaled slowly, his heart beating fast.

McInerny. In his dressing gown and slippers.  

ANALYSIS

What we've done in the scene above is take one long paragraph and break it into ten paragraphs. This is quite a dramatic change... but it has been done with an eye to building in a lot more tension.

Imagine what it's like for Ben, dropping in through the window in this dark house. We don't know why he's there (since I just made it up) and we don't know how much of a threat McInerny is. But the point is, we have created suspense by showing the reader that Ben doesn't want to be seen or heard. By creating many more pauses - by making the reader wait until the next paragraph to find out what happens - we mimic the breathlessness and anticipation felt by Ben. (Remember, suspense is created not so much what happens as the anticipation of what will happen.)

Ben has come in through the window, so we can assume he's not supposed to be there. He doesn't want to make a noise or reveal his presence... so he's either afraid of being discovered, or he wants to keep his visit a secret.

Either way, we need to keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat. We can do this much more effectively by manipulating the layout, as you have seen.

PLACEMENT OF SPEECH TAGS

Changing the layout or structure of a sentence can work wonders in dialogue, too. Most writers tend to put a speech tag on the end of a sentence:  

"I thought I left it at home," he said.


That works just fine with short snippets of dialogue. But when you've got a character relaying a lot of information, you can give the reader a mental breather by moving the speech tag to the middle.

NOT THIS:  

"I had no idea that he was involved in anything like this. As far as we knew, he just went to work every day. He always came home looking as though he'd done a day's work - dirty clothes and a black face. But come to think of it, he started working different hours about a month ago. If the boss wanted to keep going on a job they'd do a few hours overtime... or that's what he told us. Now it sounds like he wasn't even at work half the time," said Jenny.


BUT THIS:

"I had no idea that he was involved in anything like this. As far as we knew, he just went to work every day," said Jenny. "He always came home looking as though he'd done a day's work - dirty clothes and a black face." She glanced across at Monroe. "But come to think of it, he started working different hours about a month ago. If the boss wanted to keep going on a job they'd do a few hours overtime... or that's what he told us. Now it sounds like he wasn't even at work half the time."


In the first example, there's a fairly big chunk of dialogue followed by 'said Jenny'. This lessens the impact of what has been said, and the whole paragraph has been written so the reader isn't offered any 'mental pauses'. By inserting 'said Jenny' after the first two sentences, we're giving the reader time to absorb some information before going on to the next bit.

The sentence "She glanced across at Monroe" helps us to picture Jenny's actions as well as giving another 'pause' during which she seems to be processing the information she's just found out - and follows it up with more information: that he had been keeping different hours. This has added impact because it's offset from the rest of what Jenny has to say.

Next time you're editing your manuscript, play around with the words and paragraphs. See what happens if you create these mental pauses. Look at the page and judge the effect of building in a lot more white space, instead of one big, dense paragraph. You're sure to find that a simple thing like changing the layout can add a lot of zing to your style!

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

 

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