The Art of Negative Space

Hold onto your hats. We’re going to get theoretical.
In the past I’ve had a great deal of fun mystifying you with statements such as this:

Honestly, a good fifty percent (probably more) of any story is written entirely in the reader’s head. You don’t need to vomit the entire universe and all of humanity onto the page; you’re already writing it on an infinite human soul that will recognize it at a glance and fill in all the gaps.
Your job is simply to guide the emotions of the reader in the direction you want.

Well guess what. I’m going to mystify you further by expounding on how exactly one accomplishes that.
I call it ‘The Negative Space Phenomenon’. The more practical term for it is ‘reader engagement’. (My terms are so much cooler.)

So first of all, what is negative space?

Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image.

Pretty straightforward, at least as far as painting goes. Right?
I would hazard a guess that most, if not all of us, write like we’re watching the story on an internal screen. So imagining it as a theoretical exercise in art shouldn’t be too tough.
But why is negative space important? And is there a more practical way to understand it?
I’m glad you asked. You guys always have such great questions.

Negative space is important because it leaves gaps in the fabric of the story that the reader has to fill. I used to believe it was the writer’s job to describe everything down to the last teeny-weeny detail. To fill in every possible question or doubt the reader could raise; just dump it all there on the page as a complete, thorough work with every possible train of thought accounted for and met. A showcase for my glorious imagination that would inspire their imagination to stand in awe. Spoon feeding, really. As if the reader were the baby and I the careful mother.

Problem is… if the reader is eating placidly from the spoon I shove into their mouth, there’s no engagement. They just have to sit there and be endlessly glutted with a pea-soup-mash of my ideas, my perspectives, my answers, yada yada yada. Much the same as I could stand in awe before a masterpiece of sculpture, adoring it from a distance, then wander away and forget all about it because there was no connection. I had to do nothing. There was no emotion; the experience was not mine.

The truth about humans: everything we experience is about us. We want to know what things mean to us. We remember the things we found pieces of ourselves in. We are changed by the experience of putting our own fingerprints on a piece of something, and the very act of touching something not ours with our own hands helps us understand it better.
If there’s no room for us— our thoughts, dreams, questions, etc.— why do we care?

This is why negative space is important. A story is like a rubber mold. If the reader cannot pour their soul into it— if the shape is complete without them— why would they waste their time trying to invest in something they can’t be a part of?

Now, how to apply this practically.
The biggest thing is cut. Cut clarifications. Cut excess descriptions. Cut scenes that don’t change the flavor, direction, or emotional stakes, because if they don’t change anything, chances are you’re trying to insert yourself into the story for the reader’s benefit. Don’t. That only crowds them out. Cut anything that spells out how you think the reader should feel, think about, or experience your story, and let the story stand on its own feet.

This includes but is not limited to ‘repeat’ descriptions (clarifying a clarification), author monologues, information dumps, and excess adjectives (don’t tell us something was thrilling; thrill us with the description, because we don’t want to know how you felt about it). There’s something to be said for the austere stability of a statue that can stand on its own feet without prop or harness from the sculptor.
Now, this also means something a little scary on your part. As the author, you need to trust the reader.

I know, I know— we all assume readers are colossally dumb. Especially as young authors who have a hard enough time taking ourselves seriously, it’s verrrryyyy easy to be afraid that the reader won’t get you if you don’t explain literally everything. The way the pea-soup swirled in the spoon as he carried it seventeen inches from his cracked wooden bowl to his wide mouth, and slipped the spoon between chapped lips, and swallowed with a bob of his adam’s apple that would have rivaled a roller-coaster for extremes.

‘He slurped a bite of soup’ is sufficient.

But don’t just admire it for its technical brevity. Notice how it allows you room to breathe. Notice how your brain fills in the picture, like a spider weaving threads from beam to beam. Notice how much more easily it engages you.
That sense of elbow room is negative space. There’s much more to be said about brevity, style, concision, etc., in the art of writing, but it’s much too much for one article.
I just want to call your attention to this tool. Because it is a ‘not thing’, it goes under the radar far too often.

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Negative Space

  1. You know, in art we’re taught NOT to draw the outline of the subject, but the outline of the negative space. The entire concept for artists is to start out by defining what we’re not going to draw. It’s cool seeing that concept transferred to writers as well. Over-explaining is so painful to read.

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      1. Yep, that’s the one. 😀 Silence, shadows, and negative space all have their various places in all art forms. They shift a little depending on the medium, but they’re all invaluable concepts.

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  2. I am kind of a week late here, but I just want to tell you how awesome it is that you’ve brought this concept into words (and given it a name too, haha). I first noticed this in Khaled Hosseini’s style of writing, then began to realize how many other authors painted such a clear picture, concisely, and that it was my own mind filling in the blanks. My over-attention to detail in my own writing has been growing more irritating, and with the prospect of writing something longer looming over my head… let’s just say that this post really encouraged me to focus on the right things. Thanks a bunch 😉

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