“In a field / I am the absence / of field.
This is / always the case.
Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”
– Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole”
In art, there’s a concept called negative space. Negative space is the space that exists around the subject. If your artwork is an image of a dog and a cat, the negative space is the area in the piece that isn’t cat or dog. Unless you’re literally filling your canvas from edge to edge, there will always be negative space. The interesting bit is that negative space is often just as important as the positive space. Sometimes, it helps to define the subject matter, either visually or artistically. Other times, it makes its own image… or even the only image.
The concept applies to more than just visual art. Music can be as much about the silent beats as it is about the ones you hear. The cadence of dialogue is very much a balance of words and silence.1 In my opinion, negative space is equally as important when it comes to writing.
As writers, we generate a vast wealth of information and detail about our fictional worlds. There’s a natural tendency to want to include as much of that detail in the book as possible. We’ve all read books where the secondary characters were flat stereotypes and the world itself was either inconsistent or a complete cipher, and we don’t want to fall into that trap.
The problem is that we often go to the opposite extreme and end up boring and frustrating our readers with an avalanche of details. That’s not any better2. Sometimes, it’s even worse; while the first approach may result in a book that feels light and insignificant, at least that book won’t be a chore to read.
There needs to be a happy medium between the two extremes. Thinking about the negative space is one way to find that happy medium.
Your main characters and your plot are presumably the focus of your story. The negative space is everything that happens around them that isn’t necessarily pertinent to that plot; the conversation other characters are in the middle of when your character walks into the room, a reference to events that occurred somewhere off-camera, or even a relationship that begins and ends with the protagonist none the wiser. Your secondary and tertiary characters should have lives and personalities of their own, but they don’t need to be fully spelled out for the reader. Instead, you can sprinkle in hints and occasional pieces of subtext that build a picture without distracting from your actual plot. That’s all that is required to reassure the reader that your story is taking place in a living, three-dimensional world.
In See these Bones, my protagonist has twenty-three classmates, eleven teachers, and a half-dozen other characters he interacts with3. The amount of detail I included about each of their lives generally depended on how close they were to the narrative thrust, and how much time they spent with the main character4. Some students’ characterizations relied on little more than the main character’s first impressions of them, impressions I reinforced or deviated from throughout the book utilizing overheard snippets of conversation referencing unseen events. It’s a technique I found myself using even with my more important secondary characters; while the protagonist (and the reader) knew these characters better because he spent more time with them, it was important to show they had lives that didn’t center on him. The main character may be the star of the book, but the world and its people do not revolve around him. Instead of drowning the readers in all that was happening outside of the narrative, I tried to build slices of negative space that gave interested readers insights into what else was going on in the background.
“Seriously? I thought London, Santi, and our two Hydromancers were the only couples so far. Who’s the no-doubt-secretly-terrified guy?” I frowned. “Please tell me it’s not Paladin.”
“Matthew? Please. I’d break his skinny ass in two.”
“I’m not sure skinny is the right word,” said Vibe thoughtfully.
“Mmhmm, more like perfectly chewable,” agreed Wormhole.
“Anyway,” said Silt, pausing to toss a glare at the other two women, “my date’s not a first-year. Debbie’s a normal.”
Sprinkled throughout the book, hints like this one5 help to communicate to the reader that there is a lot of other stuff going on behind the scenes, that the world is a living thing, and the protagonist’s tale is just one of many.
In the end, any manuscript will have positive and negative space. By properly leveraging both, you can keep your readers engaged and interested in the main plot, while also doing the necessary worldbuilding that will have them clamoring for a sequel… and spinoffs.
That’s the hope, at least!
This will be my last blog post of 2017. I hope you all had a fantastic year, and will have an even better holiday season! See you in 2018!
- Just listen to the difference when Shakespeare is recited by a professional actor vs. a first-time high school drama participant.
- A month or so ago, I read a book that did just that… changing perspectives almost from page to page to catalogue what every single character–no matter how small–was doing or thinking at every moment of the plot. It was exhausting.
- Yes, I still regret that.
- The alternative would have been to bloat the word count by 40-50%, making it that much harder to sell to a publisher.
- I chose this one specifically because it lacked spoilers and didn’t require any additional context… but to be honest, it’s otherwise not the greatest of examples.