Adventures in White Space by Melanie Crowder

Adventures in White Space by Melanie Crowder

There are so many reasons to write a novel in free verse—the imagery, the language, not to mention the freedom to make up your own rules. One of the best things, though, is the way an author can use spacing and alignment to convey a character’s emotion or state of mind—it’s like a second wave of metaphor that hits the reader on a subconscious level. It can be really powerful, and it’s a tool prose novelists have to make do without. 

Alternate spacing can be really subtle, like an extra space between letters to  s l o w  the reader down, or it can be really visual—what we call a concrete poem—a poem about a dog typed out in the shape of a dog, for instance. 

Let me show you some examples from my novel Audacity. In the first one, my character is watching a flock of starlings swarm over a wheat field: 

It’s pretty obvious, right? The letters on the page mimic the movements of the birds. But it’s not just that. The birds also mirror my character’s range of emotions in the scene. The imagery has triple the impact because it works on a literal, metaphorical and visual level. You can’t do that in prose. 

Have I said it yet? Verse novels are SO cool. 

Here’s another example. This next excerpt comes from the first time my character steps foot in the New York Public Library:

Pretty great, right? I could have used all kinds of adjectives; she’s astonished, she’s overwhelmed, she’s delighted. Or I could have described her head falling back, her eyes roving the stacks upon stacks of books—the greatest treasure in her world. Or, I could let the reader see it, and share in my character’s delight. 

As writers, we are constantly learning from one another, and we delight in one another’s innovations. I love discovering a new verse novel and plunging in to the world the author has created. I love being on the feeling end of all the imagery and wordplay and creative spacing. So, when I began thinking about this post, and how to show off this aspect of verse novels, I wanted to hear from other writers, and I thought you might too. Here’s what a few of them have to say: 

Lisa Schroeder, The Bridge From Me to You  

She says:

I wanted the poem to look a bit like a bird, with wings, because in this moment, sitting next to the guy Lauren’s recently met who is so nice to her, with the big sky above them and the wide open road ahead of them, her heart is soaring. And Lauren hasn’t had much of that. For one brief, spectacular moment, she feels like a bird - free.

Cordelia Allen Jensen, Skyscraping

She says:

This poem, Stranded, is one of a few poems in Skyscraping that survived revisions virtually untouched. Maybe a word or two changed but it came out this way when I wrote it. I wanted to give the feeling of complete shock and alienation. The idea of being so hurt by someone you want to hide and make yourself (and all that’s happened) disappear. The character feels as small in this moment as the single words on the page.

Caroline Starr Rose, Blue Birds 

She says:

My favorite Blue Birds passages come from the poems Alis and Kimi share together. Here are two girls from two entirely different worlds who nevertheless become friends. The structure of these dual-voice poems speak the story visually. They invite the reader to look and listen in as the girls are drawn together.

Meg Wiviott, Paper Hearts

She says:

The three train poems were the result of comments from two of my beta readers. The first suggested that I give the poem a rhythm, so the reader would feel like they were on a train. The second suggested spacing to make the poem look like train tracks. Now each poem has four syllables per line, two representing each track.

Skila Brown, Caminar

She says:

Caminar has lots of inventive spacing! Here’s an example of how I used columns to show an argument Carlos is having with himself. I thought separating his thoughts out into two distinct sides made this visually look like two voices—exactly what he was hearing in his head.

Me again. I hope you enjoyed peeking into the process behind all those visual poems. 

I’ll leave you now with one final thought on the matter. As you can see, verse novelists put a great deal of thought into where to place a word on the page—but we do all that work so that you, dear reader, don’t have to.

When I’m on the reading end of a verse novel, I save all that analyzing for later, and I let myself be carried along by the story while I’m in the thick of it. I don’t wonder why the author put this word here, and that one there; I allow myself to feel the effects of those choices. Verse novels are intense and intimate and immersive and this kind of inventive spacing is a big part of why. 


Melanie Crowder

Melanie Crowder has received many honors for her debut novel, Parched, including Bank Street’s Best Books of the Year, a Junior Library Guild selection, a Silver Medal in the Parents’ Choice Awards, and a starred review from the Bulletin. Her second book, Audacity, has received three starred reviews and is an Editor’s Choice at BookBrowse and a Top Pick from BookPage. Her third novel, A Nearer Moon, releases September 8 from Atheneum Books / S&S.

The author holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she isn’t writing, Melanie can be found teaching, reading, daydreaming or exploring the beautiful state of Colorado where she lives with her family.

Find Melanie: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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