1. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Shape of the page

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by 123456789, Apr 26, 2015.

    This is something that has been bothering me for a while. What I mean by "shape of the page," is the actual text density on any given page. How big are the paragraphs? How much blank space is on the page? It has very little (as far as I can tell) to do with the actual content of the story-in essence the actual words could be comprised entirely of asterisks- and everything to do with the visual format of the text. I suspect if we were to transfer this quality to an audio book, it would be reflected by the frequency and pattern of pauses.


    My question to you all is double fold. How important do you think this is and how much do you take it into consideration? Personally, I suspect it may be a very understated and important aspect of writing, and that(maybe subconsciously ) it drastically affects how we process that information, but maybe I'm over thinking it?

    Ultimately, considering shape of text will affect your content. For instance, I think too much dialogue, especially one liners, results in a nasty shape that you have to be Hemingway to get away with.

    My second question is, does anyone happen to have any sources that discusses this topic in detail? I believe King discusses it briefly in On Writing, but it's not something I read about often.
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Hm... It's not something that I've ever considered other than that since early childhood I have noticed that if you blur your vision a bit when reading, the spaces between words and the spaces between lines sometimes create patterns that can equal shapes and images. Other than that, the actual shape of the text, it's formatting on the page guided by the kind of text it is (narrative, dialogue, etc.) isn't really something that figures in how I consider a text, be it my own or one I'm reading. I'm sure E.E. Cummings would take exception to my sentiment, though even his idiosyncratic - but always purposeful - use of the aforementioned elements only shows up in a relatively small portion of his work, albeit the more well known parts of his work. The rest of his body of work is written with a very standard, straight forward presentation.
     
  3. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I've thought about this. Haven't really seen it discussed anywhere. Not in any detail. I remember reading something Nabokov said that he hated huge patches of dialogue and felt it was the most problematic issue with modern writing - having characters endlessly talk about useless things. Lol. I can see his point, and though I do admire Nabokov he could be rather opinioned and dismissive, so I only agree with the point ... to a point.

    I find that my dialogue can slip into mundane issues if I let it ( I can think myself hugely clever when it's actually pretty standard stuff and worse yet mediocre. ) And when I recognize this it feels like such a letdown. I want it to match the style I've achieved without the dialogue in the exposition. And sometimes it just doesn't. That's when I just want to pare it down to next to nothing so that when the characters open their mouths I can keep up the good prose.

    The trouble with that though, is most modern readers like more dialogue than exposition and I think one of the reasons is the wall of text that can happen without it. It's one of the reasons I could never get into Wil Self's Umbrella. I thought jeepers, let me catch my mental breath. I think the book is the extremist example though, as it's comprised of maybe four paragraphs.

    I try not to let anything, any rule dictate how long my paragraphs should be. I stop them when I found that I've said what I've said. And the only time it felt 'wrong' was when someone commented that the Dolls of Veras Crag had a too long opening paragraph and I was like - it does? Then I wondered should expectations of YA dictate style? Should any reader be that dismissive?

    If I didn't have a good handle on descriptions and exposition, it would be extremely important. I find I have a better handle on these things now, more than I ever did and it keeps getting better the more I write. I no longer find a need to describe a character from scalp down to her toenails. I no longer feel the paragraphs getting away from me. Because I really reign in and focus on what I want to say.
     
  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That's a good topic, @123456789 . I don't know that I've ever consciously considered it, but I know that when I fart around with my pages, I often change configurations till they look 'good' to my eye. Some pages look better than others! Margin widths and font sizes can have an impact, for sure.

    My husband, who was a journalist by trade, is somebody who does pay attention to this kind of thing. He was a sub-editor, meaning his job was to edit stories to fit them into certain spaces on the page. He said that short paragraphs are the best thing for newspaper columns, because it's easier on the eye. However, dialogue isn't something that newspapers deal with very much.

    I think my 'favourite' pages are the ones that have a good mix of both dialogue and narrative. A couple of lines of short dialogue, maybe followed by a paragraph of narrative, then maybe a bit more dialogue, with narrative attribution thrown into the middle of the same dialogue paragraph. Etc. Variety, I guess, but not spottiness. I don't write dialogue that goes on and on in short exchanges, because it doesn't work for me. I also don't like the way it looks. By the same token, long long long unbroken paragraphs are also irritating.

    I don't know that I would sacrifice anything in my story to making the lines 'look good,' but I'm happy when they do!
     
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  5. VirtuallyRealistic
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    VirtuallyRealistic Active Member

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    I think the density some times speaks to who the story is directed at. For example, YA novels tend to double-space with larger text, thus giving each page less content. However, books directed at more mature audiences use less spacing and smaller text. I think this is common practice, but I may be wrong.

    I don't really take it into consideration when I'm writing. I don't change the default format of my text editor story-to-story. I've never worked with an editor or publisher, but I would think they would be the one's considering these aspects. I think how the text is formatted can be important for marketing; a teenager may set down a book that's too dense, while an adult may set down a book that's not dense enough. I don't think it's important to take into account for the manuscript, though.

    I find that I get most excited when opening to a page with lots of dialogue. I really enjoy conversation in stories, especially when it's between major characters. I think dialogue is the strongest tool a writer has for building a character, so when I see a lot of it I know I'm going to get a lot of insight. I do agree with ugly one-liners, though. I do everything I can to avoid these, but I don't really notice them when reading a story.
     
  6. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    It does impact readability, but it depends on the medium. As a general rule, paragraphs on a backlit screen should be shorter than paragraphs on paper or e-ink. And the smaller the page (or screen), the shorter the paragraphs should be.

    Paragraph breaks signal to the eyes where to move as they scan the page. Shorter paragraphs are easier for an uninvolved reader to skim, especially when there are plenty of headings to divide them into sections. Longer paragraphs keep an involved reader in a deeper "flow state".

    Honestly, though, unless you are writing for a specific medium, like a web page or a newspaper column, the semantics of the content itself, rather than readability concerns, should dictate the shape of the text. You never know what medium a book will be read on. Even the phrase "shape of the page" is based on the assumption that the text is printed on a page, which is not necessarily true. I rarely read anything on a page these days; whenever possible, I use my Kindle (with the text appearance adjusted to my liking), phone, or laptop. Often, I alternate between different devices even for the same book because sometimes I do not have my Kindle with me, or its battery is dead, or it is dark and I need a backlit screen.

    And let us not forget audiobooks and text-to-speech.

    What is readable on one device is not necessarily readable on another. I think the best way to determine the shape of the page is to put punctuation and paragraph breaks where you would naturally pause when reciting the text out loud.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2015
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    When I first read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in high school, I really liked it. I was surprised that so many of my classmates hated it. When I reread it years later, I think I figured out why. It's not that the story is dull - it's anything but, with drama, exotic locations, horror, even a touch of humor here and there - but it has almost no dialogue after the first few pages. It's a first-person narration, and the paragraphs are big and long and pages look like solid walls of text. That's intimidating for some people.

    Personally, I think Conrad was justified in his long paragraphs. He included a ton of vivid detail and his story wound up stunning.

    I think young readers, though, are scared off by walls of text. There's a lack of patience involved. It seems to me that if a kid picks up a thick book, he's hoping there's lots of dialogue so that the pages turn quickly. They're looking for lots of white space on each page.

    Please correct me if I'm wrong.
     
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  8. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I worry if my text is getting too dense, or if there is too much narration or too much dialogue. But I don't generally think in terms of appearance so much as flow of the story.
     
  9. Lance Schukies
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    Lance Schukies Active Member

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    all I can say is I often count how many words are on a page, 240 words per page 8 words per line at 30 lines,
     
  10. Lance Schukies
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    Lance Schukies Active Member

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    some thing else my maths brain notices,
    " Thus, a group of 8, 16, or 32
    consecutive pages will be printed on a single
    sheet in such a way that when the sheet is
    mechanically folded and cut, the pages will be
    in the correct order for binding. This is called
    an even working, and the group of pages is
    called a section or signature . Books printed in
    this manner will always have a number of
    pages which is a multiple of the number in
    such a signature, such as a multiple of 8, 16,
    or 32. As a result, these books will usually
    have pages left blank, unless by chance or
    editorial ingenuity the exact number of pages
    are printed.
    For example, if a book with 318 pages of
    content is printed using 32-page signatures, it
    will require 10 signatures, 320 pages in total.
    At the very end of the book — that is, at the
    end of the last signature — there will be 2
    unused (blank) pages."
     
  11. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've seen poetry written so that the shape of the text makes a shape that is "part" of the poem. It did nothing to enhance my appreciation of the poem, in fact I felt that a poem that needs a gimmick like that isn't worth reading.

    I don't think that "the shape of the page" is a serious consideration when writing a story. If the story has got the right mix of dialogue, attribution and narration, there will be enough variety in paragraphs to do nothing to deter a reader. After that, it's down to is it a good story?
     
  12. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Being a denizen of used book stores I'm more prone to hate weird font more than anything. There's one book I picked up that had very dense paragraphs but whoever published it decided to save money - less pages - by picking a super tiny font and not indenting the paragraphs very much. It was excruciating to read and I've picked it up started it and set it down many times. I just can't get through it without my eyes hurting. I'd love to find it under another print, though.
     
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  13. VirtuallyRealistic
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    VirtuallyRealistic Active Member

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    Going along with this: colored font. I despise it. I'm reading the Legend series by Marie Lu, and it has two POV characters. I'm on the second book now, and in both the female character's text was black; just how I like it. However, in the first book the male's text was yellow, and the second it is blue. The yellow was infuriating because it blended with the page. The blue is better, but it's still an eye-sore to read.

    I somewhat get why they did it. They wanted to make it readily apparent whose chapter you're reading, but it is unnecessary. Their name is at the top of the first page of their chapter's.
     
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  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I used to write with a yellow pen to drive my teacher nuts. It does blend in with the page.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You are the very soul of evil.
     
  16. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    This is something I think a lot about, as a graphic designer, I want every page of my book to look great; the font has got to be smart and easy to read, the paragraphs, not too long or too short. I like sentences to end on one page, not cross over on to the next page.

    I plan to design everything about my novel. Every page.

    For reference, if it helps with further reading, the space between lines is leading. If the leading is too close together, the eye spots patterns, or vertical lines of space, these are called rivers.
     
  17. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    He had it coming - :)
     
  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    You can go too far, though. I came across this guys website Creativity Hacker and he will 'judge' your self published science fiction based on whether or not your text breaks immersion. With some of the samples on Amazon you can read snippets and judge for yourself. I've come across a few writers and their paragraphs seem perfect but it's like he/she/they had some mathematical thing going on in their head that affected their writing. Eight sentences - no more, no less - per paragraph. It was eerie.

    I think for rhythm it has to look a bit physically sloppy. It can be bunched up and heavy for a few pages and then barren with dialogue for a few. And if you don't write a lot of dialogue - you have to be more than conscious of mixing it up. I feel sometimes writing is kinda like a symphony you can't hit the same notes and that's exactly what the prose sounded like as I kept reading those same sized paragraphs - like the same note was being struck over and over.
     
  19. Madman
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    Madman Active Member

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    1. Times New Roman
    2. Font size 12
    3. Done
     
  20. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually my exact problem is that when I see my own WIP "mixing it up," that is, chapters of big block text and then all of a sudden chapters of sparse, patchy (largely dialogue) text I feel like my WIP is inconsostent in style. Compare the text density between a Nabokov and Hemmingway novel. One is dense throughout. The other is spare throughout. The styles (and this absolutely includes writing) is totally different. I'm not judging one format over the other(although personally I prefer block text) but I do think sticking to one( more or less, not entirely !) might influence the tone and "feel" of the story.

    I'm pretty sure it was King who said the paragraph was the smallest important unit of your prose. A paragraph can consist of a . or 1,0000 words. If we consider that each paragraph represents one thing, and that we break to the next paragraph when we are ready to move on(is this a fair statement?) then the size of your paragraph determines how much you're willing to talk about that thing, and if there's a pattern, it describes your verbosity as a writer. I agree that one's content should come before visual structure, but I can't help but wonder if visual structure can't be used as a quick rule of thumb to determine what style you are affecting.
     
  21. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    * Sorry my answers a little long - but it's been an interesting discussion.


    Last night I decided to pull out some books and have a looksee at the text. I decided for an experiment I would take three authors, with different styles/types and use books that spread over a bit of a time period to see if the authors fluctuated their style.

    I chose Ruby Jean Jensen - genre author - horror, Vladimir Nabokov - literary author, and J.G. Ballard's early works - a hybrid - genre literary.

    The results were rather interesting. Ruby Jean Jensen started off rather sporadic. Huge paragraphs, a mix of dialogue and action, and mid sized paragraph but no real pattern. However as the years progressed her books got longer but her paragraphs shrank. They were now 1/3 of a page, and there was a sudden, noticeable pattern that for every few pages of lengthy exposition she would deliberately insert a scene with dialogue and action. But if you take her earliest book ( that I have) - Mama 1983 - some facts could alter changes in her style. Mama was published by General ( which published some early horror before it really caught on ), later she switched to Zebra Horrors ( known to some fans as Zero horror - lol. ) Zebra featured authors with very smooth functional prose not a lot of out there metaphors or phrase, the focus was on the story not in the language that told it so one wonders if Jensen, who accommodated by lengthening her stories - Mama was 303 pages and Baby Dolly was 447 pages, didn't also accommodate her style.


    J.G. Ballard started off with rather large paragraphs and it was usually quite a while before there was even a line or two of dialogue. But for The Crystal World he seemed to have altered his style a bit - there's more conversations, smaller paragraphs and in my copy a lot of praise for it from the critics - the first book to feature this. It's his one book that most resembles, in text pattern, other sci-fi books. I have no idea if this is a coincidence - Ballard altering his style a bit to be recognized but it's interesting that just after this book he would publish Crash and then High Rise which goes back to his huge blocks of text and little to no dialogue format.


    Nabokov is harder to get a grasp on. With Jensen she's clearly genre, she has a set audience. Ballard in a way is ditto he's clearly sci-fi but given his lack of dialogue and precision of language - clearly literary. Nabokov writes a smattering of different things - literary, literary-sci-fi, general fiction. When he started out with Mary he was quite ordinary but for Nabokov weird. The first chapter starts with five pages of nearly tagless dialogue. And though it shows Nabokov's love of language it doesn't feel pattern-wise quite Nabokov. 29 years later he published Lolita and that is the Nabokov many know. With Lolita he doesn't seem so interested in altering his text with any sense of pattern ( meaning I must insert dialogue to break up these blocks of text ) he will instead use double lined scene breaks, shorter chapters, inserting lines or poems, jingles, lists of names like a collage effect. And when Nabokov goes short as with Transparent Things or Laughter in the Dark he still doesn't alter his need for larger paragraphs but he will however, loosen his ideas on dialogue.


    Which makes me wonder if Jensen or Ballard would've changed up their techniques for different stories , different genres keeping only what they felt was their relevant touches for that particular story.


    It's hard to define what's literary and what's not ( and whether or not that's something someone wants to write or whether it has to be an either or decision ) but I feel that many know and try to avoid certain things that bare the 'stigma' of genre or the 'trappings' of literary. For instance I don't believe that Cormac McCarthy dropped his use of speech quotes for any other reason than he felt it would look more literary without them. That any critic opening the book and seeing walls of quoted conversations would've dismissed it as genre. I think in this way outside influences or rather expectations can effect an authors style. Down to the very assembly of text.

    In the end I would look to the story first and decide how it wants to be told. If you want to loose patches of dialogue go for it - I think the reason a lot of literary stories avoid it, is speech can date your story so it's easier to write a line of dialogue and have the story digest it and make it become significant in the following exposition rather than possibly losing something in the process of constantly going back and forth.

    But writer's like McCarthy are showing a change - the importance of dialogue - they're just being more crafty about how they textually handle it.
     
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  22. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Have you ever thought that the spacing of words, letters, lines could actually be directly related to the cost of producing a book??

    I think it also has a lot to do with readability, all my text is fully justified, first word of the line/paragraph is indented and line spacing is actually 1.5 lines as I often find that with closer fitting lines of text, I read the same line twice.

    But, I originally started off with 2.0 line spacing. When it came to producing the paperback, (through createspace) I was told that the minimum I could sell the book for was something around £15.00 each due to the number of pages which was over 500.

    So, I reformatted the book. I took the line spacing down to 1.5 and took the font size down a fraction. This shaved off 100+ pages and reduced the paperback to a minimum price of £9.99

    Now, obviously, those prices are based on Print On Demand which are always higher priced but the basic formula for book pricing will stay the same. More pages = higher production cost = higher sales price.
     
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