Ma—Space to Breathe

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Space Series

Today’s post is the first in a series on space. I’ve asked other writers to contribute guest posts, giving their thoughts on space—however they choose to interpret the word. I’m starting things off, so please fasten your seatbelt.

If you read Laini Taylor’s recent blog (which you can read here) as I did, you read about a subject I’ve also grappled with but could not articulate why until now. The post helped me understand why I felt exhausted at the end of some of the movies I’ve seen but always felt exhilarated whenever I watched a Miyazaki film. I know that probably makes no sense right now, especially if you haven’t read the post. I hope it will in a minute.

Laini quoted from a Tumblr post by Sara Ryan that discussed an interview the late film critic Roger Ebert had with Hayao Miyazaki. I won’t repeat the entirety of the conversation. You can read it in Laini’s post (and I totally recommend that great post) or the Ryan Tumblr post here. I’ll just repeat Miyazaki’s demonstration of the concept of ma, which sparked this post. I don’t want to come up with a poor explanation of what I think the term means, so here’s Miyazaki’s explanation:

He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”



I still wanted to know more, so I dug deeper and discovered posts mentioning a 1979 exhibit (MA: Space-Time in Japan) by an architect, Arata Isozaki, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. In the search for information on that exhibit, I found another quote on ma, this time at a site called Big in Japan:

The Japanese spatio-temporal concept of ma suggests a gap, opening, delay or silence. It can be understood as a demarcated in-betweenness in space or time. A room, being the space formed inside walls, is ma. A pause in music, as the gap delineated between audible notes, is also ma.

In Miyazaki’s films, moments of rest are built into the action. Those moments never felt gratuitous to me. Instead, they have a meaning beyond just scenes of people staring at the pretty scenery. I can’t help thinking of the interlude in Miyazki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s novel) where Sophie and a young wizard in training, Markl, gaze at Star Lake or the scene in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä hears the prophecy of the warrior in blue—an interesting bit of foreshadowing in each movie. Some might roll their eyes at both scenes. But I love them, because though “rests,” they still advance the plot and help me understand the characters in a deeper way.


Nausicaä and Sophie and Markl

In contrast, I can’t help recalling some of the drawings of M. C. Escher, the well-known Dutch graphic artist, particularly his symmetry drawings like the one below (click here for others) where all of the space is filled with images. These drawings are the visual equivalent of some of the movies I’ve seen and also some of the books I’ve read over the years (and no I will not name them, so please don’t ask)—a space filled with action from Fade in or page 1 until the end (or fade out); no rest for the weary.


Reminds me of our fast-paced culture, where waiting is cut down to seconds. We fast-forward through commercials or skip them altogether to get to the program we want to see. Thanks to the constant influx of information, our brains rewire to the point where a slower paced scene in a book seems like a commercial—an unwanted interruption. We want to skip over it and get to the action.

Writers are told over and over: “You have to engage the reader at the first paragraph and hold on to that reader’s attention.” This accounts for the frenetic pace of many novels that aren’t even classified as thrillers. Stories about newborn kittens become The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition (the perilous account of the struggle for life among tabbies).

I find that I need space between the action, that moment of rest where I can breathe and interpret the action in the grand scheme of things. So I include those moments in my manuscripts even if there’s a danger that an impatient reader might simply skip over them.

How about you? Are you all about the action? Or do you, like me, need space to breathe? If so, how do you build those moments of rest into your narrative?

Escher bird painting from Nausicaä cover from Scene from Howl’s Moving Castle from Kanji character from Space image from White space from

42 thoughts on “Ma—Space to Breathe

    • Thanks, Alison. I’m excited about it too. Now I need to check your blog to see who people would marry, date, or dump and whether or not they agreed with me. 🙂

  1. I absolutely need breathing space in my stories. I have walked out of several movies thinking, “Man, I could use a Valium right about now” just because I’d gotten so amped on the constant action. I think what I found interesting about both your post, L., and Laini Taylor’s post is that the moments of ma actually ENHANCE the story. They don’t slow it down in a boring way, or at least not for Taylor, but they play on anticipation to build reader excitement. It’s also a great place for character development. In fact, this whole idea of ma dovetails quite nicely with writer Laurie Morrison’s recent blog entry on using secondary characters to act as a measuring stick for an engaging but fallible narrator:
    These down times are perfect times for friends to gather and reflect upon what has happened in the novel so far, as well as reflect to the reader crucial character information.

    • Thanks for your comments, Shelby. I’m glad you brought up Laurie’s post. I totally agree. A quiet moment is the time for a recap. In both of the scenes I mention, this aspect takes place. I needed to read Laini’s post to really reflect on that. I had the wrong idea about many of my scenes. People gathered and talked, but to no real effect. They were just eating or waking up and talking about nothing in particular. I revised one of those scenes three times before I finally realized it was useless!

      • I just read Laurie’s post right before yours (catching up on my writing blogroll) and it struck me as it meshed with Taylor talking about Karou and her friend in the cafe that these are good places to do the kind of quiet reflective work that Laurie talked about. I’m also strongly reminded of the “watering hole” as described by Chris Vogler regarding Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (with which I know you are intimately familiar). It seems that these gather-round-the-campfire moments can, if written properly, provide that ma for the reader, although that can easily be used to keep tension high as well, defeating the purpose.

      • The watering hole–good point and good reminder. I need to learn to write these better. So far, I have too many that are info dumpy. 🙂

  2. I love this concept! I think I’ve sort of being adhering to it without knowing it had a name. I had my phone turned off all day today and it was lovely. Not that I had any missed calls or messages when I turned it back on, but it was nice to know that I was just that bit disconnected from everything for a while.

    As for writing, I do believe in launching the reader right into a scene (there are so many good books waiting for me to read them, I need to be hooked from the outset or I’ll just set it down and move onto something else), but once it’s lured me in, I am quite happy to have the breathing space. There have been a few books I’ve read recently, where I’ve literally thought, “Wow, and another thing is happening after that other thing! Things just keep happening!” (or words to that effect).

    (Having said all this, I would totally read The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition!)

    • Emily, I think you could write The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition, since you have such great fairy tales. 🙂 I don’t think I would be as convincing.
      I don’t mind novels starting off with a bang, as long as there’s some pool of quiet in which I can stick my toes. But I also love a quiet beginning as well.

  3. Space boggles this professor’s mind.

    But, anyway, while I love action, the professor needs some down time. It helps build the excitement again. Then again, there is something for those tales that are so intense that the professor can hardly breathe!

  4. I think sometimes I struggle with too much downtime (my characters have a habit of ruminating way too much, which is exactly as annoying as it sounds), but maybe the balance I need to find is not necessarily just a break from action, but an actual quieting overall, both internally and externally.

    In any case, thanks for this and the link to Laini’s post! It’s definitely some good stuff to ponder.

    • I know what you mean. In one novel I struggled with scenes that didn’t really go anywhere–characters were just sitting around eating. (I usually wrote those scenes when I was hungry.) They were a break in the action, but didn’t really advance the plot. I wound up having to cut those scenes. Moral for myself: “Never write when you’re hungry. You just wind up writing scenes you’ll cut later.”

      • It’s funny you should mention eating because I have these scenes in my wip as well and they’re totally gratuitous and useless. At one point I was reading my work and thinking “The only reason they’re eating breakfast is because breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” Cut. So Ellar, I agree I have the same issue. Oh, to find that magical balance would be so lovely!

      • Ha ha! Though you do food product placement well. I can’t help recalling the Sun Chips in your zombie story! 🙂 Makes me laugh just thinking about it!

  5. This idea of Ma is intriguing and I found it really interesting you mentioned Escher, because it reminded me of a book I’ve tried to finish multiple times- Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. In one of the early chapters, he talks about “figure” and “ground” as it’s used in art and compares it to mathematical theorems and all sorts of ideas that are way above my head. But the concept of foreground and background are there. Might try to give that tome another go at some point…

  6. What a wonderful post! And thanks for introducing me to the concept of ma. I too feel the need for some breathing space in movies and in books. I remember one book in particular that I read in which the heroine had absolutely no time to sleep, and I felt exhausted reading the book. I do try to build reflective time into my stories–maybe too much so for some readers–because I feel that need for balance.

    • And that’s the great thing about the concept, Stephanie. It reminds us that balance is needed. It’s like humor and sadness. One shows the other in sharp relief.

  7. Not just movies and books, we need some time out in life. I only go so far until I feel the need for quiet time-be it a walk in the woods or just on the fields with the dog. Perhaps a quiet corner with a book. I think at our core, in the midst of a busy and noisy life, we do crave some silence. As a Dad of four, I definitely do 🙂

    • I’m sure you do! My mom used to demand that we go outside to give her some “peace and quiet” as she always used to say. But you do the opposite. You take yourself outside. 🙂

  8. What a great subject for a post. This concept of ‘Ma’, (which I had never heard of before) or a space to breathe, seems to have universal application. Too much of anything dulls the senses. Ma is the pause that refreshes. I need to think about this further on a very long hike 🙂

    • Thank you, Malcolm. I’ve heard others lecture on it before, but I don’t think I understood what they said until I read Laini’s post. I also was very glad to understand why I love Miyazaki’s movies.

      Yes, ma has a deeper significance than my post allowed. I only touched on the very tip of the iceberg.

  9. Now I have a word for one particular paragraph in my latest PB. It’s “MA” or space to breathe. Interestingly, some in my critique group liked the pause before the climax and others thought the paragraph in an otherwise fast-paced book wasn’t necessary. But I think the MA is necessary and important and deep, so it stays!

    • Hiking and yoga have already impacted your writing, Andra. You just wrote several posts with yoga poses and you’ve written numerous ones on hikes you’ve taken. Isn’t the main character of your novel someone who made you take that perilous hike down that gorge? (Sorry. I can’t think of what it was called.) You’ve impacted others (like me) by inspiring us to get off our couches and go out hiking.

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  11. Insightful post, Linda! But now I’m intimidated because you and Nancy have provided such useful writing advice and I have nothing to say..except maybe “building with LEGO is fun!” Anyway, you make excellent points about the importance of contrast between quieter moments and action scenes. One of my pet peeves is stories that start with some crash-bang event, but I don’t know the protagonist yet, so why should I care?

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