Monday, February 21, 2011

Negative Space: or The Kama Sutra Beat Me to It

Negative Space. Is it a vase? Or two people facing?

I write romance, ergo, I write about love. Because we all know and crave love, because it is such a known emotion, it can be incredibly hard to show this queen of human sentiment. After all, how does one make what is commonplace feel fresh? More importantly, how many new ways can the act of a kiss or making love be portrayed? Discover new words? Use new and different positions? Hell, the Kama Sutra took care of that centuries ago. So what to do?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about negative space. In general, it’s an art term. You have the subject of your painting, let’s say, a female nude. The negative space would be everything in the portrait that surrounds the woman. The space between her thighs, under the curve or her waist, that is negative space. An artist’s eye can become lazy. She sees the object, usually a familiar thing, and thus paints the object. But what if instead, she trains her eye to look at the painting, the entire scene as a whole? Suddenly it isn’t simply a nude female before her but an assemblage of shapes, both the figure and the space around the figure. Suddenly the artist sees the scene in a new light. A depth and freshness can be found that she never knew existed, simply by taking the negative space into account.

How does that work for the writer? A scene isn’t simply composed of what is there but also by what isn’t there. We have dialogue, action and description. They create a world on a page. But we want these characters to feel real. In real life, our world revolves as much around what we don’t do and say as on what we reveal to others. Sure you can use interior monologue to convey this but what about the fact that we as people often go through life largely unaware of our…let’s say, personal foibles? What about the times when we act without thinking?

But I’m going to backpedal to the issue of love. In real life, more so than in fiction, we express our love in subtle ways. We aren’t all poets. We don’t usually go for grand gestures. My husband shows his love for me every day, simply by being there, by trying to help anyway he can, by placing his hand upon my hip when we drift off to sleep. Of course, part of what makes fiction so gratifying is that the characters act out all the grand gestures that we don’t. However, when it comes to romance in stories, these grand gestures have been done so many times that they’ve become common. Which is why I return to the notion of negative space.

In this time of outward emotion and heavy displays of affection, paying what isn’t obvious can intensify sexual tension. So in a love scene, it becomes not so much about the mechanics but the space around what your couple is doing. Let’s say, they’re getting down and dirty. There are only so many ways of saying that. *Cough* One can thrust, plunge, pump, etc. But in the midst of this plunging and pumping, your hero tenderly stokes away a strand of hair sticking to the heroine’s cheek. Like that, the hero’s tender feelings come out in a way that sticking to the mechanics of a scene would not convey, no matter how many terms you use. Perhaps it is at the moment of a kiss. There is heat and heavy breathing, and just one moment of at last that weakens a heroine’s knees and lets us know more than the act of kissing itself, that this means so much more than kissing.

Which leads us to the more subtle instances of love. Are there parts to your story in which your characters don’t act outwardly lustful, loving, needy but it is obvious that this is what they are feeling? Does the hero protect or comfort the heroine without thinking of what it will do for him? Do they betray their inner feelings by NOT acting? This restraint, the evolution of selfless giving can make those moments when they do act so much more intense because we readers are dying for it. We’ve been teased, anticipation has grown. This is foreplay in the form of plotting.

In a way, negative space in terms of novel crafting is foreplay. It is highlighting those other areas to increase anticipation and ratchet up the tension so that when you do zero in on the main objective, that being the specific action/dialogue that propels the plot, the reader is fully engaged. Clear as mud? (g)


  1. Oh yes... but it's complicated.

    All emotions can be conveyed by whatever is NOT being said. That's my idea of negative space in writing.

    Still, I agree with you that displays of love need more subtlety. A touch of a hand... A kiss to the temple. Small things.


  2. I totally agree! Fellow Crusader dropping in. Great post.

  3. Misha -- I agree. I forgot to add that this idea could/should be applied to all aspects of the story. I used the love scene as a specific. Kids are home today. My attention is diverted. lol.

  4. I agree - sometimes it isn't all about the thrusting and heaving. That's just sex. Love is so much more.

  5. Great post, Kristen. You're right about the little things that make the scene more than mechanics.

  6. Wow. Just wow. Thanks so much for this, it was fantastic! I'll definitely have to work on my negative space my writing. :D

  7. This was fascinating.

    I've had a good ponder as to whether you meant "subtext" by "negative space." Subtext is an implication of something beyond to what we are seeing. Negative space surrounds what we see (or in the case of a written scene, surrounds the character). Subtext is internal. Negative space...external. That is its nature.

    What do we do with external factors in a scene? We humanise them: the wind is a villain against the heroine's hair; the tree is a grasping hand; the city itself is given a personality. Even the light can be a literal reflection of character. We internalise the external to make it function for the piece (just as we do when we look at these strange photos; when we "swap" what we see, we're internalising).

    This brings me back to negative space. If it is that which surrounds the character then it is still subtext, but it's external subtext. E.g. heroine staring blankly into her mirror: put some used tissues on her dressing table, a smashed photo frame by her feet. A ring sitting back in its box. Take the heroine away -- leave a shadow -- and you still have a story. That, I think, is negative space in writing. Negative space occurs when we take our attention away from the character and there's still something to report -- something we can then internalise.

    Although this is what I get for blog binging at 1:30am after half a bottle of Pepsi* if I've just misunderstood or talked rubbish, do feel free to tell me, lol.

    *Yep, I am that hardcore :P

  8. In my romance novel, the characters never even say the L word to each other. But they hint at it. :)

  9. Hi Lucy. Love this comment.

    You know, I probably could have gone on and on about this subject. I try to rein myself in for fear of boing the poplace. lol. But, YES! the negative space in a scene (in my mind) is the external subtext as you envisioned it. It's the little things we fill in around the direct action that tells it own story. The reader pick it up on some level and understand that there is more to the story than what is directly occurring.

    Hmm... but as I'm typing this I'm thinking that while art (in the form of a photo or a painting) is two-demensional, a story is more close to three-demensional because you have the character's internal monologue. So then could we apply negative space there as well? Such as in a character thinks, "That guy gets on my nerves. Look at him strutting around like the cock of the walk" (ack, terrible example but...) The negative space there would then be her noticing the guys moves, being attracted to him but not outwardly acknowledging it.

    Count me in on nighttime ramblings. (g)

    Anyone feel free to disagree, agree, dissect. :)

  10. @ Kari Marie. I'm a sucker for a good sex scene, but without any emotional context, I'm soon bored. :)

    @ Zan Marie - I like to get the bones down and come back for the detail. Oddly, when I do, the scene often changes in ways I didn't expect. Usually opening up a whole new subtext.

    @ Madeline -- thanks! I'm glad it helped. I think it's something we all need to work on, or remember when writing.

    @ Trisha -- sometimes, that's the most emotional type of relationship. Subtly is an art. :)

  11. Awesome post, Kristen.

    You know, subtext to me means symbolism, irony, unreliable narration, misdirection, double-entendre, and other methods that give the text complexity. "Sub" meaning under, as in an underlying theme. I may recognize it right away, or it may occur to me later, as I ruminate about the story.

    Negative space, OTH, is the space I recognize but don't give much value to. It could include elements of subtext (ie underlying meaning), but not always. It's freer than that - it could just add more depth, color, richness to a scene without any underlying meaning. I love your idea of enriching the negative space. It's said that a great composition in art is one that has a balance of positive and negative space. I can see that having a balance of that in a story would also make great composition if done skillfully.

  12. Interesting post. I like it. I'm going to be pondering about negative space all night now. It seems like it would be about things unsaid or the kind of subtext Susan Montgomery talks about.

    I'm in group 10 with you. Happy crusading!

  13. Kristen -- I was thinking about negative space was aesthetic or not in fiction. I assume it might differentiate given the perspective; in first or third person close, the character is our subject and negative space surrounds them. I'd comment on third person omniscient but I don't like it much :p so don't feel qualified!

  14. Hi there - I'm in group 10 with Jen. I write YA and about as involved as I'll get is a kissing scene, but it is hard to make them fresh because they've been done so many times. Thanks for giving me some good stuff to think about.

  15. Brilliant post, Kristen. And hey, Lucy, I like your idea of the subtle bits of description, the space around the hero or heroine that tells a story even without a character there.
    Lots to ponder as I edit!

  16. Hey Kristen -- Okay, not only are you a fellow romance writing're a Marylander too! (Don't tell the others, but you just became one of my favorite crusaders!)

    And as far as your post, I think you hit the nail on the head. To me, what's often sexiest are the unexpected little things. They add to the act that most of us already know pretty well ourselves.

  17. Interesting post Kristen. I agree that subtlety and subtext are important ways to build suspense, romantic or otherwise. I definitely make use of them - in fact I'm probably more often accused of holding too much back from the reader than the reverse!

    There's an awful lot of stuff inside my head (backstory, politicking, prior history etc) which never makes it onto the page but which informs my characters and how they behave and react in a given situation.

  18. Excellent post, Kristen.

    You know, I was thinking, this concept of negative space is also very much about showing/saying just enough, then leaving space for the reader to fill in the details. And as every reader is an individual, every reader will fill that space with slightly different imaginings, different details, or nuances of emotion. Which is what makes a book a great read, for me. Having everything spelled out is just plain boring; leaving me space to see or feel things for myself, to get involved with the story in my own way, is what sucks me right in.

  19. Great stuff, Kristen- I used this blog post to argue a point at my book club meeting last night (g). This month we read Room, by Emma Donoghue, which is narrated by a five-year-old who obviously can't understand everything that's happening around him. I suggested that there's a level of negative space around what you might otherwise call an unreliable (or at least unaware) narrator- the things he doesn't know don't just not exist. The reader needs to fill the blank to make the picture complete. I *love* stories like that, when they're done well.