Writing with Negative Space

In graphic design and visual arts, artists use negative space to emphasize their subject. The same could be said of words, in particular stories where you leave enough to the reader’s imagination so they can enjoy the novel, essay, short story, or whatever it might be.

I received this nugget of knowledge at WorldCon last August. Stina Leicht mentioned applying the negative space principle to words during a panel on how to write yourself out of a corner.

Some writers will be quick to say negative space represents the show, don’t tell meme that is driven into every writer’s head who ever attends any sort of workshop. I’m not so sure I agree, though.

While no one wants to read a ton of drivel and boring details from the writer’s perspective, I’ve seen enough authors tell and get away with it. Great writers, in fact, like Philip Roth, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Some go as far as to say the show, don’t tell rule is the great lie of writing workshops.

In reality, “show, don’t tell” seeks to eliminate weak writing. Telling often fails to captivate, and leaves nothing to the imagination. “She was pretty,” for example.

Instead, we show. “Johnna’s brown eyes held my gaze gently. Her full lips curled into a small smile as auburn locks moved slowly backward toward her ears. I tried, but could not stop looking at her.”

However, note the absence of detail there. I did not show you what color or style her clothes were, what her body looked like, what her hands were doing, etc., etc. No, that is the reader’s purview. You assume she is pretty because of the narrator’s reaction, but she may not be.

Over-showing, in my opinion, does as much damage as flat-out telling. Like the straight forward tell, it robs the reader of negative space to imagine.

In considering tellers, the celebrated ones unveiled their stories in straight forward terms. I am stuck by their uncanny ability to do so in an interesting manner. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson gives us whole chapters dictating the scientific laws of the 2312 world through how-to manuals. It’s insane, but delicious, tickling your mind! When you finally understand who is narrating those chapters, your mouth drops open.

Robinson succeeds because he fuels the imagination with negative space instead of robbing the reader of an imaginary journey. It’s the art of grabbing enough to draw, while hiding details so the reader can fill them in with their own opinions, hopes, views and beliefs. A story that grabs the reader engages them in a form of mental interaction, even if they are observing through straight-forward telling.

That is the power of negative space in conjunction with a well-delivered written image.

Personally, I can develop my own expository style further, continuing to move away from tell to show. However, I don’t think a complete yield is the full answer, rather a commitment to tickle the reader’s imagination.

What do you think?

Mean Tweets

Have you seen Jimmy Kimmel‘s Mean Tweets skit yet? I finally did when the NBA version came out a week ago (below).

The tongue-in-cheek celebrity response to Twitter’s raucous social media culture pierces through a lot of hubris. Mean Tweets says what many of us involved in online community management feel.

Life as an online community manager, blogger or personality today requires dealing with some idiotic nastiness that people spew on social media
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Why Serial Complainers Lose Credibility

never complain
Image by Rain

So why do serial complainers lose credibility on and offline?

We all know these people, the kvetch or worse, the troll, the person that always brings a storm cloud whenever they discuss an issue.

Publicly everyone listens, privately they get dismissed on the back channel as a hater or worse. Eventually, people stop listening all together.

The title alone is the answer, specifically, repeat complaining.

In social communities the consistent malcontent becomes the equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. In fact, if the malcontent goes so far as to hurt others, they breed a form of reciprocity that no one really wants to see, vengeance.

A German study from the Institute for the Study of Labor shows that negative acts create a similar responsive reciprocity, a willingness to harm those who previously acted against the surveyed individual.
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Amazon on Negative Comments: Disregard 5%

Dana (My sister)
Image by Spi-V

In its Holiday Marketing Best Practices Guide, Amazon coaches online merchants to disregard negative comments until they reach a ratio of 5% of all comments:

“Most sellers will eventually receive some negative feedback. When it happens to you, put it in perspective: a 0-2% negative feedback rate is great! If your negative feedback rate is greater than 5%, review your business practices to correct any operational problems that might affect a buyer’s experience.”

Amazon has had its fair share of customer service issues over the years. But I agree with the online retailer’s guidance in principle, and use a similar barometer in coaching clients about negative commenting.
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Judging versus Supporting Others

Good VS Evil
Image by Sabrintha Linda

You know the old glass is half full metaphor.

Well, that applies to the way we talk about and critique others. We can support the strong points someone offers, or we can tear them up.

This is particularly true of teams, communities and other group activities.

Harvard Business Review ran a great piece by Rosabeth Kanter a few months ago about creating a positive culture of respect.

“Winners can maintain high aspirations and act generously toward others,” said Kanter. “Losers are more likely to blame others and disdain them as mediocre, creating a culture of finger-pointing and infighting.”

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