The reader’s reaction happens in the gaps.
I’ve just been reading a book about time. In it, we were encouraged to take a pause for a few seconds to allow a breathing space. Later that night I was reading a historical novel as my bedtime reading, and noticed that it had hardly any white space on my kindle. Also, the description butted right up to the speaker with no white space between. This novel was wearing to read, and the insertion of a little more white space in terms of paragraphing would have made it so much easier to digest. White space can convey what isn’t said in a scene. It is the subtle pause where something more can be read into the doaligue or the body language of your character.
The white spaces are the gaps where your reader ponders what will happen next. If there are no gaps, there are no spaces for the reader, and the effect is like force feeding. Allow the reader some time to digest and process by making enough white space. I sometimes use one sentence as a paragraph, if it’s important and needs space around it for the reader to think of the effects of the narrative on plot and character.
White can be black
I noticed too that white space can make a convenient ‘black-out’, to use a theatre term. The white space cuts us from one scene to the next. This is particularly useful in historical fiction when you don’t want to describe decades in which nothing new actually happens, but its necessary to show the passing of time. Transitions are often hard to achieve, but the white space does it effortlessly. It signals that we have switched to another time, location or point of view.
Sometimes when I’m drafting, if I don’t want to spend a long time researching the mode of transport (type of ship for passengers in 1630’s Italy for example, or what sort of carriage took you from London to Norwich in 1700) I’ll just type the words ‘Get them there’. Then I continue with the next pertinent scene. More often than not, the ‘Get them there’ can later be replaced with a white space – either a chapter ending or a page break.
This keeps the narrative moving forward and prevents endless journeys by carriage or horse, where nothing of any importance happens.
The shape of a page
Historical novels often need large amounts of world-building and these descriptions can seem impenetrable unless punctuated by white space. Think of your novel not just as words to be read, but as a visual picture that must be uncluttered and easy to digest. Balancing description with dialogue will supply you with some white space. If you send your book to your kindle or ereader and there are many pages with no white space or paragraph breaks on each page this is a sign that your book may be indigestible.