Alma-Tadema - Sappho and Alcaeus. People gathered around a poet

White Spaces and Pacing in Storytelling

Or – what unites Frank Rose, Charlie Melcher, Maria Popova, Scott McCloud and Derek Walcott?


In my mind, something does, but first, some exposition:

I did one of those slightly useless but thoroughly interesting degrees, studying Classical Civilisation at the University of Warwick and whilst this degree in no way trained me for any sort of profession, it was definitely influential for shaping some of my ideas and critical thinking skills.

One idea that has been floating through my head for a while involves words and the habit of reading. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had literature, notably the epic poems of Homer and, later, Virgil.The structure of these poems is interesting to us, as there are lots of repeated epithets, ‘cunning Odysseus’, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ – and one theory is that these repetitive phrases were deliberate, to help the poets to recite them, to give rhythm to the language.

Alma-Tadema: painting of people gathered around a poet
Alma-Tadema Sappho and Alcaeus 1881 Oil on canvas 25 7/8 by 48 inches


These epic poems were recited from memory and were only ever experienced out loud so such devices were no doubt necessary. This in and of itself is pretty interesting but in terms of this post, it also means that the habit of reading as we know it did not exist, there was no silent reading, no reading at all, for books as we know them did not exist.


Similarly, when inscribing temples, monuments and any other public buildings, the Greeks inscribed words but there were no gaps between the words, no spaces at all. Think about how difficult reading as we know it would have been without any gaps? The skill of reading becomes merely trying to decipher meaning from a very long string of letters. It is more like deciphering code (AKA my current life) or parsing Latin: as a reader you are deducing the beginning and ending of the words to make sense of the sentence. The only modern equivalent I can think of is in learning German, wherein words are often sandwiched together, in a a way that is disorientating to a beginner.


Reading, was not, as outlined below, the opportunity to understand and ruminate.

Charlie [Melcher, founder of Melcher Media] talked about the importance of the white space between words—a convention that was lost during the Middle Ages. “You couldn’t really think about what you were reading when you were decoding those words,” he says in the video. “But with the invention of white spaces, people could read quickly, and silently, and with that they could start to have thought. And so I had this epiphany: Maybe that’s exactly where we are right now. We’re in the early stage of our digital literacy where we’re still kind of struggling, and we haven’t figured out the metaphorical white spaces of the digital age.” 

Source: The Frank Rose, in his summary of the Future of News Summit 2012. (Bolding my own.)

Charlie Melcher and Frank Rose are not the only two thinking along these lines, at a recent lecture, Scott McCloud explored a similar theme when discussing comic book structures.

As anyone familiar with a comic book will know, the format tends to be left-to-right illustrations, top to bottom. The physical white space between one illustration and the next indicates that time has passed to some degree. The amount of time is not set and, indeed, can vary depending on the scene. Somehow as readers we instinctively understand this.

I like the fact that three disparate people are all thinking independently of each other but on similar lines, their collective idea that white space is important for reflection (and something still to be worked out in the digital realm) is intriguing. Another interesting opinion comes from  Maria Popova,  who recently published an article that ties into this idea too, although tackling it from a different angle. In her article, Popova argues that the value of a storyteller is to use information selectively to improve our wisdom.

Wisdom in an Age of Information
Wisdom in an Age of Information – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Wisdom in a era of information overload

For me, the opportunity to further my understanding, my wisdom  if you like, through reading is what makes the entire experience for me. White spaces between images and words provide the opportunity to ruminate on what I am reading. It allows me to form my own opinions on the content at hand, forming new connections and ideas.

It allows me to imagine.

In this way, I have a unique relationship with the content, all because I have the luxury of time and space to put it in context with what I already know. It also helps to make my mind agile and it is this that allows me to grow intellectually, even at my own very low-level.

Or, as Derek Walcott wrote:

“At the end of this line there is an opening door”

From The Bounty.

That Derek Walcott line has stayed with me for years, since reading his poems at school. Whilst I doubt Walcott was referencing technological change or the issues that arise when confusing wisdom with information, I have long been inspired by the possibilities and optimism of the line.



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