>Our Own Worlds<

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The Nothing of Books: Negative Space in Writing

3 min read

By Sarah Buhrman

In that most iconic episode of Buffy, “The Body”, there is a scene at Dawn’s school where the students are taking art. The teacher talks about drawing negative space.

Today, I’d like to talk about the value of negative space in writing. The value is almost entirely based on the reader. That is, us.

What is negative space in writing?

Description is the CGI of writing. Good descriptions give the reader a virtual movie in the mind. Bad descriptions are… well, bad. Too much description can actually get overwhelming to readers who may have some dissonance trying to insert too many details into their mind-movie.

So writing negative space is the art of giving just enough detail for clarity while allowing the reader to imagine the less important details.

The opposite of purple prose

Was describing your sandwich necessary to our understanding of what happened?

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with purple prose. It’s a stylistic choice/preference. Some people like it; some don’t. In the interest of clarity, I don’t like it. My opinion, and it didn’t change after 6 semesters of college lit classes, so not likely to change now.

That said, embracing writing styles (as both readers and writers) that allow for negative space gives us the power to participate in the creation of the art. That’s a pretty fancy way of saying “We get to imagine the world in our own way.”

Now that’s a bit misleading. Nothing prevents imagining the world even with vivid descriptions (read: Tolkien). There is, however, an advantage to paring back bulky prose and allowing the reader to fill in the gaps wherever the details are less relevant to the plot.

Pros of nothing

The biggest pro is that the reading is easier. I get it. You don’t want to be Dr. Seuss level in your reading (or writing), but let’s face it – any author would commit various crimes for Geisel’s audience reach.

negative space

My point is that easy reading has little to do with quality, or even vocabulary or topic. It’s mostly about style and technique. Ease of reading allows for faster reading, and for creating accessibility for those who have problems reading (shout out to my dyslexic peeps!).

Another pro is that you tend to have a lower word count. For writers, this lowers the cost of producing the book on several levels. For readers, that lower cost may be passed down. Additionally, readers get more story for the word count. More story instead of more description.

The cons

The biggest con is that some people really love good, detailed descriptive stories. I can’t disagree with this reason. It’s the novel equivalent of watching a sunset, something to be enjoyed, for certain, but otherwise relatively unnecessary.

The takeaway

Description is as much about what the writer has described as it is the space left blank for the reader’s imagination. As with art, some pieces use negative space more than others, and it is a part of the work and the technique, which creates the overall impression of the work.

What levels of description do you like?

Even though negative space in writing is less conscious, do you have any literary/genre favs that use negative space?

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