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Writing in Negative Space

February 28, 2012 by Kiersi

Writing in Negative Space

How many times have you told someone something they didn’t really need to be told? “You look like shit today,” for example, when your friend is obviously under the weather. Or worse, “When are you due?” Only to find out she’s not expecting anything.

Learning how to omit the obvious, or even the not-so-obvious, is a hard task for those of us tasked with creating a reader’s world. I’ve briefly covered the topic of killing your darlings before; I illustrated cutting text to imply meaning, where the reader’s imagination does the work. The results can sometimes be more thrilling or terrifying than laying out the action on a moment-by-moment basis.

Today I want to cover how, instead of cutting out information, you can use negative space to eliminate the bore factor and make your story more exciting.

Neutralizing descriptions. A great way to use negative space in writing is with descriptions. Working on The Aeronauts, I find myself drawing the strange creatures that call Joshua’s world home in painstaking detail–partly because I’m an artist, and partly because I love making up monsters. This kind of detail helps the reader’s image of the thing match mine, that’s true, but am I doing the story a disservice? Absolutely. But there are some rules to keep in mind when including or omitting descriptors.

Don’t leave out essential descriptors. Taking the example of an immense, ocean-going mount used by Prince Gueylon, that both represents his arrogance and his importance in the Aguien community, it is important not to leave out the size of the beast. I compared it to something the reader could understand: “The immense gray body flailed in the shallower water where it had landed, taking up a space big enough to house a three-story apartment building.” We understand roughly how large it is. Like Maria, the character describing the creature, we aren’t exactly sure yet what it looks like–we are simply struck by the magnitude of it.

Apply specific, distinctive characteristics, and leave out the mundane details. Continuing with the example above, I want to show how a creature of such incredible size feels trapped in the small confines of the council cavern. As it flails, Maria sees “white eyeballs flash in the dim light.” Suddenly, the reader has an understanding of the beast’s dilemma, and why it roars and thrashes.

This suggestion is probably best suited to describing people, who, frankly, mostly look alike. Humans all have eyes, noses, mouths, and usually hair. Instead of barraging your reader with boring laundry lists of descriptors, try picking one or two characteristics to describe a person. Suddenly, those characteristics matter a lot more. Which ones embody the person? If a girl is plain–brown eyes, brown hair, average looks–what makes her stand out? Maybe she curls one side of her mouth when she talks, giving her a quirky or clever quality. Maybe her hands tremble, because she is a coward.

If you have trouble coming up with these unique traits, try people watching. You’ll start discovering all sorts of odd and hilarious tics people have.

Neutralizing actions. Like descriptions, action and movement can become bogged down with too much fluff. Suddenly your stabbing scene looks more like parlor theater, or your climactic kiss is wet and drooly.

Assume, assume, assume. As kids, we were taught assuming “makes an ass out of you and me.” Well, forget that. You can assume a lot from your reader, depending on the age of your intended audience. Obviously, for younger ages, you can assume less–but nevertheless, you’d be surprised what you can get away with in children’s literature.

A friend of mine used to have a nasty habit of writing everything a character did. If he went to a restaurant, then he drove there, walked in the front door, talked to the hostess, sat at a table, looked over the menu and ordered something to eat. It was agonizing to read. If your character is going to a restaurant, you can assume your reader knows what going to a restaurant is like. Unless something useful to the story happens at the restaurant–the waitress is a secret agent, for example, or the character meets another character and they have a power play hidden in a mundane conversation–don’t bother. Someone important once said: “Don’t write a scene unless it moves the story forward. Don’t write a scene unless it contains conflict.” (Not verbatim, as I have absolutely no recollection of who said that.)

My boyfriend is a teensy bit obsessed with Agatha Christie, and one thing he always praises about her writing is her ability to skip over the boring parts. Sometimes she’ll skip over whole mundane sections of dialogue simply by saying, “They greeted each other.”

Treat the pace of action accordingly. And by this I mean: if your scene involves one character stabbing the other to death, pace it accordingly. There may be some short moments of introspection, but overall, that stabbing goes by pretty fast. One, two, and the guy’s dead. If your killer is the narrator, you can give him some brief reflection: what does the blood look like? Is he sure of himself, or panicked? But don’t spend too much time on it, because you want the prose to keep the frantic pace of the action. Reflection and introspection will slow it down. (There are other methods of halting or revving up pace using punctuation, too.)

If you’re writing that climactic kiss, also tread with caution. Naturally, some narration is expected: does she smell like honeysuckle and cut grass? Are her lips firm, or giving? But spending too much time on the action of kissing itself is unnatural. Only in movies do kisses last more than five or ten seconds; don’t let your prose turn that epic moment of gratification into a slobbery made-for-TV movie.

Neutralizing emotion. Sometimes I don’t want to know everything a character is feeling. It takes me out of the story, and feels as if the writer is forcing emotions and reactions upon the reader.

Let action and description tell the tale. If a character has been hurt, don’t say, “Meredith was heartbroken.” This is the classic “show, don’t tell” trope: if you can illustrate a feeling with actions (maybe Meredith breaks something, or drowns herself in her favorite food, Froot Loops), then do so. Describe facial expressions. Let the reader react naturally to conflict in the story.

Find a middle ground. Riddling your romance or tragedy with emotional introspection will not make your reader feel more emotional. Sometimes, just letting the story tell itself is enough. Use the negative space! Find places where emotional tension is high, and try cutting out thoughts and feelings, focusing on the physical manifestations of emotion. Dialogue is of the utmost importance to escalating tension.

Have a good example of writing in negative space? Drop it in the comments area!


  1. Eddy says:

    Great advice! I often over-describe things in ways that don’t trust the reader, so this is especially relevant for me. It’s hard sometimes, especially with otherworldly creations, not to show people how awesome the thing you’re imagining in your head actually is.

  2. Kiersi says:

    Aaaggh, it’s so true. The more vivid the imagination, the harder it is not to write it like a picture.

  3. Good info. Although I write only non-fiction technical articles, reading your posts reminds me to try not to over-describe things.

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