Negative Space in Prose

One of the most powerful tools that graphic designers and visual artists use is the deployment of negative space. Sometimes called “white space”, it’s the use of empty space in the layout of, say, a magazine page or a painting–an area with no graphic elements at all. Negative space is incredibly good at building emphasis. It sets off the the positive elements of the image space, making them look more important, giving them a look of concentration and focus.

You can, of course, use this version of negative space in a book or story–in fact, you probably do so without thinking about it. When you indent a new paragraph or put a line break between sections you’re using white space as a kind of visual grammar. These elements are the equivalent of fades and cuts in film, breaking time and plot into meaningful shapes.

You can go farther with it and use it in a foregrounded, insistent kind of way by setting text off in different-sized boxes, or artificially limiting the number of words on a page. This can come off as pretentious or even wasteful–a lot of readers will look at a half blank page and think they’re being cheated–but it can be used to wonderful effect. House of Leaves, for instance, uses it to create a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation. It’s very rare to see this done, though, and even rarer to see it done right.

But there are subtler ways of using negative space in prose, and they are amazingly useful to the writer, even writers who have no control over the layout and design of their published pages. Negative space doesn’t have to be white space, in these instances. There are ways to create psychological negative space. To use a different metaphor, I like to think of this technique as adjusting a volume knob on my prose. By making things quiet, you can force my reader to pay closer attention. By making them loud you can switch the reader’s default reading mode on, lulling them into a sense of comfortable complacency. Readying them for the next big, devastating moment of action or emotional pathos.

So how do we accomplish this? First we need to recognize what the positive space in prose is. We want to find the element of a story that is most foregrounded, most direct in its approach to the reader. Often–though not always–that will be dialogue. Two characters in conversation is a pretty standard foreground for readers who have been raised on movies.

You can create negative space, then, by switching off the dialogue. Think of it as “silent space”, perhaps. In the middle of a dialogue-heavy piece, a long(ish) section of pure description or action with no words spoken is sure to grab the reader’s attention, though they may not even realize it’s happening. The mere sense that something is different is enough to pique the reader’s curiosity. When the dialogue begins again in the next section, the reader’s attention will be activated and the words will gain added import.  One must be careful, of course, not to use this technique too much in a given piece–or you run the risk of having your silent moments become positive space, and your dialogue slipping into the background.

Which–of course–is a perfectly valid tactic. Dialogue may not be your positive space. Naturalistic and realistic writing often employs limited dialogue–think of The Road (or any Cormac McCarthy book), or Neuromancer, where whole pages often go by with only a single line of dialogue. In this case the spoken word is absolutely being used as negative space, to set off the stream of consciousness in the silent space, which becomes the default mode of the piece.

There are plenty of other ways to use negative space in prose, and all of them share this technique of modulation. Sudden shifts in tone will create a discontinuation–make a sudden, precipitous shift from the mildly humorous to the shockingly, graphically violent and believe me, your readers will pay attention. The sudden insertion of, say, a transcript of a video or intruding on the narrative by quoting an entire letter or poem or song–setting off sections with epigrams, even just using humorous chapter titles in a serious novel. It’s all about breaking up the visual field, and it reminds us that yes, writing is a visual medium too, regardless of how it’s usually defined.

For an extreme example of how this works, we can look at Dracula. The classic epistolary novel is an interesting experiment in the interplay of positive and negative space that goes beyond normal modulation. Dracula is a document made of documents, a patchwork quilt of letters, transcripts of phonograph recordings, newspaper accounts, and private journals. Instead of using positive and negative space in interpolating sections, it presents a narrative that is constantly mutating, constantly trying out new tricks. It flies far beyond simple ideas of positive and negative, creating a kind of jumbled space, a chaotic terrain that keeps the reader from ever feeling like they’re standing on stable ground. Dracula can be kind of a mess, honestly, when read today–one wonders how late Victorian readers felt about it, readers who were accustomed to perusing different kinds of non-standardized paper documents all the time. Now it feels like a dozen different narratives tangled up in the same box. Yet we cannot deny its powerful effect, all the same. The book has survived this long for many reasons, not the least of them its wonderful, untenable kaleidoscopic use of tortured space.

Playing with space is one of the crucial elements of creating art in any medium. Take a look at how you can use different values of space in your writing and a whole new dimension of writing can open up for you.