Musings: Writing in the Negative Space

I’m baaaa-aaaaack!

G’day!

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, recently. This friend is insanely talented (he writes and draws), and we were talking over a collaborative idea I’d had for both of us to work on (said collaborative idea involving a graphic novel/comic style book).

This led us into a discussion of the sort of illustration style I had in mind–which, to be honest, mostly served to illustrate (ha! see what I did there?) how little idea I had of the style I wanted, and how little I knew about drawing and graphics as a whole. One of the art styles I brought up as something I liked was the art of Hellboy, which led off into another discussion–this one about the use of negative space.

Negative space.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

It’s a concept that I’d heard of before, but not in a while. The concept, like the style, is deceptively simple: negative space is the space that surrounds an object (the positive space) in an image. In the concept of negative space, this space is just as important–and in some cases, more important–than the positive space. It defines the positive space. It gives the positive space its meaning and boundaries. As a method of illustration, it brings a certain starkness and boldness of style that I love.

After discussing this with my friend, it occurred to me that I’m fond of negative space in more than just illustrations. I’m also a huge fan of negative space when it comes to reading–and writing.

On the face of it, you’d say that it’s not possible to used negative space for anything that isn’t visual. I would then say that you’re dead wrong. (If, on the other hand, you’d say that you agree completely, I’d stutter around a bit because the conversation was not going the way it went in my head and I was now flailing while my brain re-routed it.)

Because of course it’s possible. The execution may be slightly different, but the idea of presenting a concept, world, or character by using factors and indicators outside of the actual concept, world, or character, is a totally legitimate form of writing. It’s also a very effective one.

So there you have it, guys.

Basically, if you ever read one of my books that doesn’t make sense to you, or where the world-building, characters, or concept is never fully explained, it’s just me writing in the negative space and you obviously haven’t been clever enough to understand my genius *snark, snark* (IT’S ALL THERE IN THE SUBTEXT, GUYS.)

Seriously, though.

Negative space is one of my favourite styles of writing–was even before I thought of it as an actual style–and I typically try to explain as little as possible, leaving the reader to figure things out on their own by the way the book is written and the way the characters act and react. (“Never apologise, never explain”, as Antonia Forest says through her Navy-trained characters).

Because I trust you guys to be clever enough to get it. Sometimes, of course, that backfires on me, because sometimes I forget how much I know about the story as a whole, and don’t give my readers enough to work with.

In other words, negative space can be a double-edged sword, which means it needs to be handled very carefully (especially if you’re inclined to clumsiness, like me). But when done well, it’s delightful to read.

My favourite users of negative space: Antonia Forest, Ronald Kidd, Diana Wynne Jones, and Nicholas Fisk.

Antonia Forest uses her negative space in the form of conversation: aka, what is often not written in the form of narrative is given to the reader just as clearly by effective dialogue. It shapes the narrative rather than the narrative shaping it.

In a similar fashion, Ronald Kidd (especially in the fabulous Sizzle and Splat) writes whole passages of dialogue only, and it is amazingly effective. Seriously, go and read Sizzle and Splat right now.

Diana Wynne Jones uses her negative space more in the way of spare, no-nonsense narrative that in its simplicity says a lot more than another writer would say in twice as many words. She uses simple words and easy sentences, and they’re superbly  effective.

Nicholas Fisk, now: he’s the the really interesting one. His negative space is more of an idea than an actual thing. It’s the adult perspective. See, he writes children’s books. I could read them easily as a child and understood and loved them. Now that I read them as an adult, its as though there’s a second layer there: a layer just for me as an adult, that shapes the story into different–and yet they’re just the same–lines than it had when I was a child.

I don’t always do it well, and I don’t always do it effectively, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop using negative space.

Musings: Why Won’t This Thing Die??

There’s this thing I see a lot in fiction. It happens in movie/tv series as much as in books, and it’s even more annoying there (for my long-suffering hubby as well, because then I remonstrate with the tv. At the top of my lungs.).

It’s the thing where the detective/cop/insurance investigator is too close to the investigation due to a personal connection (ie, investigating the death of his/her own wife/husband/brother/whatever), and throws convention and the orders of their superior officers to the wind to investigate and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The plucky detective then goes on to prove that he/she can handle the pressure and bring the murderer to justice.

It’s a reasonably irritating trope, but I can live with it cos I can sympathise with the desire to make sure justice is done by doing it oneself.

The thing I want to die? The episode further down the road where an officer from another precinct or a grieving father of a murdered/missing girl is determined to push themselves into an investigation. Same setup, same idea. But this time, the officer or father is painted at best as an interfering annoyance and at worst as a trouble-stirring ambulance chaser.

No. Just no. If something is laudable because your MC does it, it can’t become dreggy and wrong because a side-character does it. That’s flamin’ bad writing and needs to be fixed. Give your side-characters and walk-on characters a better form of conflict. Flip your point of view. Just because your MCs are bothered, it doesn’t mean the thing that bothers them has to be a bad thing. Maybe they need to learn a lesson. There’s nothing more annoying than a set of characters who encourage you to see only from one point of view, and automatically assign opposing ones the status of being wrong by virtue of disagreeing with them.

Repeat it with me: “It’s flamin’ BAD WRITING”.

Musings: Praying For World Peace

Image from 4THALUV's Blog

Image from 4THALUV’s Blog

It’s Easter, and a lot of my Catholic and Episcopalian friends are in church for the week, praying for world peace (along with other things, one presumes).

So I’m going to talk about peace today. Only since I’m Protestant, I’m going to talk about it slightly differently.

Essentially, Christmas (my favourite holiday) and Easter (2nd favourite- yup, I’m that predictable) are all about peace. It’s not, however, the sort of peace that you may be thinking about. Christmas and Easter are inextricably linked together: the one celebrating the birth of God in the form of a man, the other commemorating the death of Christ on the cross. The main link between the two is Christ. Well- obviously, I suppose. Christ is born (Christmas) and Christ is killed and rises again (Easter).

The other link between the two is the idea of peace.

When Adam sinned, both as a single man and as the head of the entire human race, we all fell with him- following our representative head. Thus, from then forward, every human born was born in sin, and at enmity with God: because how can a truly just and righteous God permit sin? If He did, He wouldn’t be righteous or just, nor would He be God. “For the wages of sin is death”¹ and somebody has to pay that price.

But because He is a God of mercy also, He made a way for  His justice to be satisfied; and in so doing, His mercy was shown as the great godlike quality that it is. Thus, when Christ is born, the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”²

The angels aren’t talking about men loving their fellow men, here. That’s a good thing, but it’s not what they’re talking about. The angels are rejoicing that at last, on earth, there is “God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself”.³ God becomes man, being born as a human; and as a human (and mankind’s other representative head), dies to pay the wages of sin. God’s justice is meted out on God himself, so that God can extend peace and forgiveness to sinners like me.

Since this is Resurrection Sunday, no Easter blog post would be complete without mentioning the resurrection. Christ rose again from the dead, alive and changed, because His sacrifice had proved acceptable and fully covered all of those for whom He died.

There’s peace to be had from Easter and Christmas, but it’s not the sort of peace that’s usually peddled this time of year. It’s a better peace. It’s “God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself”. It’s the peace of knowing that the divine justice of an angry God has been appeased by that God Himself, and that if we accept “the gift of God, in Jesus Christ our Lord,”¹ we can be reconciled to God. His peace has been extended to us.

So, this Easter, I’ll be praying for peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

 

{1} Romans 6:23

{2} Luke 2:14

{3} 2 Corinthians 5:19

Musings: On Hannibal The Cannibal

Okay, so first things first. When I talk about Hannibal I mean the TV and Movie Hannibal. I haven’t read the books. That said, proceed!

hannibal lecter

I’ve watched a few of the Hannibal movies (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, and Hannibal) and I’m now in the process of watching the second season of TV Hannibal, which is slightly different again but just as compelling. (Also it’s fun to listen to hubby retching when he comes in sight of the tv screen for a particularly gruesome murder.)

The murders are one and all excessively gruesome and sometimes beautiful in that gruesomeness (for example, the guy with a tree wrapped around his legs, his arms in its cherry-blossom’d branches and glorious flowers blossoming from his split torso). They’re also almost completely unbelievable. I mean, seriously, what murderer has the uninterrupted time to set up a guy in a tree in a parking lot without being noticed? Or slice a girl into slides and arrange the slides so beautifully that it’s like looking at one of those books with the plastic slides of musculature? Not to mention the cops should have a field day with stuff as easy to find out as who purchased eight-odd MASSIVE FREAKING SLIDES OF GLASS.

That’s another story, though, and for the most part I suspend disbelief and just go along with it. The question that occurred to me the other night is, why do I go along with it? Why am I watching this show? Why am I even half cheering for this guy?

To recap:

  1. The bloke eats people. Yanno? He actually slices pieces of flesh and bone (though mostly, it seems, the soft organs like kidneys and brains and tongues) and cooks and eats them. That’s not okay. That’s gross and disturbing and completely alien to any right-thinking person.

  2. He murders on a whim. If he thinks someone is being rude, whether to himself or some other societal more he considers important, wham! That person is liable to end up dead, with missing body parts. That goes for any musician unlucky enough to disturb Hannibal’s enjoyment of a concert by playing a wrong note. I can only imagine what he’d do to someone whose mobile phone went off in the middle of said concert.

  3. He’s been known to wear people’s faces. Seriously. Like, tearing off a dude’s face and wearing it to escape (if you want to know how that happens, watch the movie yourself). And he tends to disemboweling and other gross stuff like that. He seems to prefer his victims alive, too. That is also not okay.

There’s more, but those are the main things. This guy is a predator; a terrifying, alien, other predator with no normal human morals or perceivable conscience.

So, the question remains: Why is he so compelling?

And I can’t deny that he is compelling, because despite the extreme violence in the movies/tv show, and the (for me) more than usually allowable bad language, I found it hard to stop watching. Why is that? Since the moment I watched The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (my favourite of the movies, if ‘favourite’ is quite the word to use) I’ve puzzled to myself about why I find Hannibal so compelling. Watching the second season of the TV show Hannibal got me wondering again.

This morning, in the middle of my devotions, cuddling my cup of tea, I got it.

There’s a catechism/truth/principal that is used in the Presbyterian church I go to, and in some of the older protestant books that I read. It goes something like: ‘The value of a soul depends upon the object of its affections’. It’s used in relation to God and His loving of His own Self: ie, that His soul/person is of infinite value and worth because the object of His affections (Himself) is utterly beautiful, perfect, right, just, and unchanging. His affections are set on what is most right and beautiful. In that sense, God defines Himself. It’s also used with regards to Christians. We’re ultimately beautiful when we love that which is beautiful- in this case, God. Our worth is dependent upon appreciating and finding beautiful the things that are beautiful and ought to be appreciated. If we love wrong things and see them as beautiful instead, our soul is corrupted.

To tie this in, consider Hannibal’s main relationships. In the movies, it’s mainly Clarice Starling: an upright, righteous, and morally straight FBI Agent. There’s the sense that she’s a good copper, but the main idea that I personally got from their interactions on screen was her unwavering sense of right. She was morally upright.

In the TV series there is Will Graham. Now, as the series proceeds, he gets darker. But the thing about Will that I most appreciate is that he sees the darkness in the world and potentially in himself, and he hates it. Even the wrong things he does are motivated by a sense of right. He is terrified of the darkness, and yet he keeps fighting it in the world and in himself.

And these two people, in one way or another, Hannibal loves. He loves them fiercely, terrifyingly, and in some cases, almost entirely selflessly. It’s an alien and unfathomable emotion in him. He sees the uprightness in them and he loves them for it. He knows that if he gets too close he’ll be burned, but he can’t seem to help himself. He’s drawn to them.

And that, right there, is what makes Hannibal such a compelling character. In his otherness and alienness, he is terrifying. But in his love of these two people (and seemingly only these two people) with their uprightness and unwavering determination to do what is right at all times, there is something oddly good and worthwhile.

So while the violence turns my stomach at times, and I fully recognise that Hannibal needs to be shot quickly and efficiently, I can’t help but find him compelling still.

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter