Musings: Writing in the Negative Space

I’m baaaa-aaaaack!


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.