Writing Negative Space

by M. Thomas

In art, negative space is the area around a focal object: white paper behind a line sketch, space between the arms of a sculpture, the background of a photograph. The wisest art teachers will tell you negative space is as important as the picture. Clutter negative space with minutia, and you distract from the focus. Make it too sparse, and you’ve lost depth. Speculative fiction, because it assumes a landscape outside our tangible existence, tends toward lush description—from epic milieus to the smallest beads on a dress. Managing this exposition is difficult, and most writing advice is filled with vague admonishments to “only write what moves the story along.”

Timing is everything in exposition, and words are the seconds by which the reader’s clock ticks. Slowing the pace of a work during a grand procession by adding more detail can lend gravitas to a scene: readers will expect a procession to move slowly, that a watching crowd has time to notice tiny details. However, slowing the pace is not permission to use meaningless scenery which emphasizes nothing in particular. Similarly, a fast-paced climactic scene which dwells on irrelevant tapestries cheats the reader of pertinent detail.Writing negative space is more than showing-not-telling. It means sketching a complete picture with a few words, and omitting detail without losing depth.

Mary Sue Isn’t Just a Character

Mary Sue-ism doesn’t stop at character development. It lurks within the temptation to assume that because this is an other-world, the readers need a full spectrum of detail, starting with blades of grass and working their way up. And yet, a tree is a tree, and readers will expect any Earth-like world to have them. Writing “it was like an oak tree, but with fruit like apples,” only tells the reader it’s an apple tree in a fantasy world—and goes the long way around to boot. What would be worth mentioning is if a fertile landscape did not have trees, the connotation being inclement weather (which could affect the characters), a mysterious tree blight (which could affect the characters), or over-clearing (which could affect the characters).

There is a particular passage in China Mieville’s The Scar which illustrates using negative space to sketch an otherworldly scenario. The main character is watching a procession of prisoners on the deck of a ship. “There were no vodyanoi, of course. On a journey like this, fresh water was too valuable to use keeping them alive.” The author doesn’t go on to explain nor describe the vodyanoi—he doesn’t have to. He’s offered up enough meaningful detail to create a nice balance of negative space, giving the reader a bit of the extraordinary, and using it to point out the value of fresh water.

It is seldom constructive to worry too much about excessive description when writing the first draft. We all know, or have been, one of the endless tinkerers worrying at a passage until falls apart under the pressure, taking the plot down with it. Trust the reader, and avoid the urge to step in and further explain what’s already been described. If it’s a tree, the reader will know it’s a tree. If you’re still concerned, work with beta readers who will offer objective commentary. After your beta readers have read a passage of the work, ask them to describe the scene and the most interesting thing in it from memory. If they remember everything except your intended focal point, chances are you’ve given them too much to look at. Likewise, if they can remember very little except the focal point, you haven’t given enough depth to the scene.

Besides working with a beta reader on description, consider the most repeated advice in writing: let it sit. A day, two, a week—there are other portions to be written, and allowing a passage’s detail to blur in your memory will promote fresh introspection upon reading it again. What not to show are those meticulously detailed explanations that fill our minds as our worlds flesh out in our imaginations; cinematic sets and rich panoramas that are the writer’s enthusiasm for his or her own world building. Landscapes and cityscapes are negative space which shouldn’t draw attention away from the crumbling tower, the approaching army, the mysterious nova, the man running away from the scene of a murder. If a reader is to have a personal stake in a story, give him or her detail that matters. Give too much, and you’ve cluttered the negative space so that the picture is lost. Offer up the unexpected, extraordinary, or flawed, and readers will build their own landscapes around it.


First drafts are often filled with weak placeholders glossed over in the pursuit of the story. The serial offenders are well known, but bear repeating:

  • Strings of adjectives: It was a moldy, drafty, crumbling, foreboding castle. (The castle was crumbling.)
  • Pointless adverbs (totally, absolutely, really, and etc.): He was absolutely sure that she was really angry. (He knew she was angry.)
  • Over-abundant articles: The smoke from the fire made the sky turn black. (Smoke blackened the sky.)
  • The preposition of: The crown of the king was made of gold. (The king’s crown was gold.)
  • That used as a conjunction rather than a determiner: She knew that the king was angry with her. (She knew the king was angry with her.)
  • Vague quantifiers (some, a little bit): There was a little bit of blood on the sword, and some was running down his hand. (Blood ran down his hand and sword.)
  • Clumsy, contradictory similes: Her eyes were clear as morning skies, her lashes like far-off birds winging their way into the sunset. (Her eyes were blue.)

Becoming aware of clutter words is a matter of practice, but the search-and-find function of any word-processing program works almost as well. Finding less obvious culprits is a matter of practice, close reading, and the determination not to be coy with the reader. For instance: His boots appeared to be spattered with the unusual, yellowish mud which was sometimes found in the cemetery. His boots are either spattered or they aren’t. Spattered mud is not an optical illusion. Also, unless another location is going to be later revealed as having the unusual yellowish mud (which would end up showing itself to be a construct for the sake of a whizz-bang twist), why disguise the fact that his boots are covered in cemetery mud? If the writer isn’t surprised by it, and the character isn’t surprised by it, the reader won’t be either.

His boots were spattered with yellow cemetery mud. Let the mystery be what he was doing in the cemetery, not whether his boots had mud on them, and where the mud came from. Let a meticulously stitched, but not-quite-invisible-mend in a beaded dress speak volumes about poverty and the determination to hide it, more so than any didactic character thoughts, onlooker dialogue, or intrusive narrative exposition. Similarly, allow rising mists and close-set trees to create the needed sense of claustrophobia in an unnerving landscape, rather than paragraphs of similes on the thousand shades of darkness and infinite scary noises.

The Silence in Speech

Emotion-laden, truth-speaking conversation is difficult and risky. Our speech slows as we search for words which won’t be misconstrued, nor dismissed as frivolous. This type of conversation is full of negative space: self-conscious off-the-cuff riffs, analogy, and innuendo hoping for some unspoken, unanimous revelation in the end—without having to offer up emotional vulnerabilities. In the midst of real emotion, people are blatantly coy, utilize distraction, or are downright resistant to conversation.

Characters say too much when they say what the reader wants to see on the page (or what the author wants to see her characters say). The lovers who are too ardent, the companions who are too honest with one another, the villain who cackles at his own villainy—what is easily written is too easily said. At an emotional apex, words shouldn’t go easily onto the page. Wish-fulfillment dialogue may satisfy the author, but will leave the reader feeling driven to an empty sentiment. Dialogue becomes poignant when readers see everything not being said and identify with that particular negative space in the narrative.

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a good example of two people desperately trying not to have a particular conversation. It would be tempting, as a writer, to sit the two down for a good heart-to-heart, considering the stakes of the issue at hand. By not allowing the readers to have what they want, Hemingway provides them with something of far more depth; a truly human interaction, both poignant and frustrating.

Once we are invested in our characters, it is all too easy to channel our personal hopes and fears for them into their own words. The trick is to remember how dialogue colors others’ perceptions of a character. Ever notice how folks tend to avoid the one guy in the office who talks non-stop about his weekend, his dog, the weird mold he found under his sink? That’s how a reader may view characters who spill their emotions onto the page.

Over-obvious dialogue offers the reader little more than a picture to hang on the wall and occasionally dust. That’s not to say dialogue cannot expand upon plot, nor assist in world or character building, but it’s helpful to keep in mind how people talk to one another based on their relationships. People who have had long relationships seldom indulge in trivial chit-chat—it’s already been said—nor do they bother circumventing a difficult topic; they know what reaction to expect and how to counter resistance from years of practice. People just meeting may indulge in light chatter, but it will be meaningless and brief (you can only maintain small talk for so long), not soul-baring intimations.

Placing the reader within the picture means creating an understanding of what isn’t being said, and readers are never more involved than when they are sharing in the conspiracy of omission. Trust the readers to have invested themselves as much into the character as you have, and, as with description, sketch the picture of conversation with words most meaningful to the plot, not the author or reader.

Hijacking a family member and having him or her read out loud to you may help. Keep your manuscript in one hand and a red pen in the other. Notice where the reader stumbles, runs out of breath, begins to drone, or loses inflection. Ask him or her to summarize the words of a particular character, or to try and remember a particular character’s response to someone else. If the dialogue is flawed, it will not have made an impression. If it is meaningful, your volunteer reader will remember it.

It is difficult to wean ourselves away from everything we want to see on the page. Writing negative space is paying close attention to that which surrounds the plot, keeping it balanced in detail and dialogue: sparse where the reader’s clock is ticking, relevantly lush where the reader will be served by extravagance. When the plot is made three-dimensional over and above the writing, the author has written a well-balanced negative space to complement the story.

M. Thomas is a writer and teacher. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Aeon, and The Fortean Bureau, among others. A full bibliography can be found at her website, Found Things.

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