Gray Space: Making Room for the Reader | Jane Friedman

Gray Space: Making Room for the Reader | Jane Friedman

and a white t-shirt holds a small wooden picture frame to the viewer. The frame contains only empty white space where the picture should be.” class=”wp-image-62794″ srcset=”×667.png 1000w,×300.png 450w,×512.png 768w, 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px”/>Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Today’s post is by author and book coach Janet S Fox.

Elision is not a word that is often used in story crafting, but it should be. To elide is to omit, or to leave out. and we need to know as much about “leaving things out” of our stories as we do about the things we love to add.

Why elision? Because the emotional connection that’s made between the writer and reader is strengthened by what the reader brings to the story—their experiences, dreams, hopes, and longings. When we let the reader fill in our intentionally left blanks, we invite them inside our imaginary worlds.

As writing evolved from cuneiform and hieroglyph to alphabet, we became primed to make associations between symbols. Like the pleasure we take in solving a puzzle (Wordle, anyone?), humans have learned that it is pleasurable to fill in gaps in text, and now we associate emotional connection directly with reading.

When writers use elision, this is much like the way that visual artists use white space: by creating space within images, the viewer’s brain fills in what’s been left out to complete the picture. I coined the term “gray space” for what writers do when we elide, as we link gray matter, writer brain to reader brain, to fill in unsaid ideas.

and yes, this is another way of understanding the adage “show, don’t tell.” The difference lies in this question: how do we “show (not tell)” something without a single written word, which is what elision (leaving things out) implies?

Let’s look at the craft techniques you can use to make gray space.


When dialogue is used to convey concrete information from one character to another (especially information that characters should already know), it feels clunky, mainly because this is not the way people usually communicate. Actual living dialogue is fluid and awkward, and runs in fits and starts, full of interruptions. While you don’t want to write the latter kind of dialogue any more than you want to write the info-dump, you can create a balance between those two, by using the gray space of subtext.

Subtext is what is implied by what is left unsaid. Characters who know one another will talk around subjects, especially if they are fraught with underlying tensions. Affection may take form as suffocation. Troubleshooting may come across as accusation. Misunderstandings will increase tension, and misunderstandings are often generated by what is not being said bluntly and plainly. 

The best example of gray space in slant dialogue is Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, where the couple never mentions the difficult event they are discussing:

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”

The couple not only elides the subject, but they avoid directly addressing how they feel about it and more importantly about each other. As readers, we grasp their pain and isolation, and the fraying of their relationship, without being told.

Internal monologue

Your point of view character(s) will generate internal monologue, which is critical to understand the characters’ emotional states. But internal monologue can be shaded and slant, too. Inside our own heads, we often lie to ourselves, especially if we are hiding from wounding experiences.

In Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark, Pong, hurt and betrayed, hides from his wish:

Pong didn’t share his thoughts with Somkit. He closed them inside himself, where they hardened into a physical thing, making a box around his heart.

Memories as analogies can serve to elide the truth, as Sara Pennypacker does in her novel Pax: 

But what he loved more was the fence behind it. The fence told him exactly what was his responsibility and what wasn’t. A ball fell inside that fence, he’d better field it. A ball soared over it, and it wasn’t his to worry about anymore. Nice and clear.

Peter often wished that responsibility had such bright tall fences around it off the ball field, too.

The truth that Peter has not explicitly said, the truth of his feeling of responsibility over his mother’s death, is something he has hidden from both himself and from others.

These internal roadmaps are placed early in both stories, driving readers to yearn for Pong and Peter to complete their journeys to healing.

Gesture: action and sensory detail

Because we are hard-wired to take cues from body language of those around us, if the actions of one character are not clear to another, bad things can happen. Use what you leave out to convey emotions that may be misunderstood or misinterpreted, which increases tension and creates the desire to read on.

Pennypacker makes her main character Peter’s first interaction with Vola in Pax feel menacing: “She came closer and thumped the ball into the glove a little harder.” With that single physical gesture, and without a word or other indication as to her intent, Vola is a scary figure. Is that a true interpretation? Pennypacker intentionally leaves the reader and Peter in the dark.

Setting conveys emotion but the more we let the reader decide what that emotion is, the better. A dark forest can be a refuge or a threat, or both. A storm can be a cloak or a danger, or both. Leave out the explanations and let the reader derive meaning by injecting their own experiences of forests and storms into the moment.

The moment of highest tension in Pax, when Peter despairs he will ever be reunited with his fox, is given added power by the image of a once-comforting forest that has been shredded by war: “All the trees in the lower field were gone, uprooted and blasted to splintered logs.” We read on, pulled by anguish, desperate with precarious hope, surrounded by this shattered landscape.

Rhetorical devices

Finally, use devices like endowed objects to convey information. An endowed object (something that carries deep thematic meaning, like a locket, hatchet, toy soldier, or scar on the forehead) when used carefully can substitute for a thousand words of explanation, if the writer has made clear the emotional connection to that object early in the story.

Trust the reader to get what you are trying to say without doing anything more than presenting the object, as Suzanne Collins does in The Hunger Games, when Katniss uses her mockingjay pin to send signals of trust to her allies and rebellion to her enemies. Readers yearn for those “aha moments” of recognition.

The benefits of gray space

The most obvious benefit of using elision is to heighten the emotional response of your readers. By leaving things out of your narrative you allow the reader to fill the gap with their own memories and associations, and this results in that “getting lost in a book” feeling we all want our readers to have.

The second benefit of gray space is to heighten tension. Leaving things out of the narrative allows the reader to speculate, to wonder, to move closer to the story. Tension increases as the reader tries to fill in those blanks, predict outcomes, guess at what’s really going on with those two lovers.

For the reader, this is all at play in the subconscious, and in fact the deeper the better. But for us writers, we must be aware that what we leave out is as important as what we put in, so we must become skilled at deliberately crafting scenes rich with gray space.

Janet S Fox

Janet Fox is the award-winning author of nine books for young readers, including three YA novels, 3 middle grade novels, two picture books, and one middle grade non-fiction, with more coming soon. Janet is a book coach and former teacher and has an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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