Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Positive and Negative Space in Writing and the Writing Life

Writing Wednesday

I came across a post on the Murderati blog about positive and negative space in architecture and the implications of those ideas in writing and the writing life.

Commenting on 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  by Matthew Frederick, the author said that Frederick's definition, "We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces," hit her like a revelation.

She goes on to say:
"When I thought about this in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page."
Simple enough, right?

The other meaning when applied to writing is the creation of the worlds we hope to evoke. Mr. Frederick goes on to explain:
“The shapes and qualities of architectural spaces greatly influence human experience and behavior, for we inhabit the spaces of our built environment and not the solid walls, roofs, and columns that shape it. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”
Spaces in which to dwell and pass through. How does this apply to writing (where space is a conceptual space)?

  • Showing is a dwelling space, telling is a pass-through space. Both are needed if the story goes some place.
  • Perhaps in pacing: action is a pass-through space, quieter segments are dwelling space.

How does this concept apply to the writing life?

The author likened her task-oriented approach to pass-through space: get one job done and move on to the next. She said that she's now realized the value of mental dwelling space, which provides time and place to simply be. I've heard some people characterize mental dwelling space as refilling the well.

I think there's value in thinking about your writing and your writing life in terms of positive and negative spaces. What do you need to pass through? Where do you need to dwell?

Image: Simon Howden /

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