Part 1: The Significance of Space
As writers, we often think of ourselves as “word people,” fully entrenched in the realm of language and all things verbal. Yet we have more in common with our artsy counterparts than we think. Some people even go so far as to call writers story architects and engineers of narrative. We might not use clay, paint, or plaster, but words can serve as building blocks just like bricks and stone.
Yet this notion of writer as builder doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. As writers, we don’t just create a books as objects, we are story designers and our job is to craft immersive experiences for our readers.
As a graphic and product designer, I spent the beginning of my professional career designing toys and packaging. Even now as a writer, I often find myself thinking about stories and writing in design terms and I’m excited to do a deep dive into some key design elements and how they relate to our craft. Today we look at space.
The Final Frontier… Okay, Not Really
Unlike the infinite darkness explored by the intrepid Star Trek cast, in design you often have to deal with space in terms of limitations. Space is a precious resource, and the amount you have available—along with its configuration—will determine what you can do with the design. This means that somewhere along the way, you will need to make difficult choices, deciding what to include and what to leave out.
The same is true in writing. While a 90,000 word novel might feel huge when you’re just starting to write, if you go too far over that, you will need to trim it down. That cutting process can be hard. In fact, many writers find it easier to add five thousand words to a manuscript than to cut that same number.
The finite nature of space—both in design and in writing—forces us to make choices, and that’s where things get interesting. We can’t cram every last detail in our story because it would either bore readers to tears or we’d simply run out of room. This means we must choose to show certain details on the page while others are implied but extend beyond the page. In design terms, this concept is called closure.
As an avid comic book fan, I’ve been surrounded by closure my entire life, I just never realized it. Closure is that notion that even though you don’t see an image in the comic’s frame, it still exists outside the field of vision.
As an example, imagine a comic showing Wonder Woman flinging her lasso, but the frame crops out part of that lasso (along with the bad guy she’s hitting with it). Readers won’t look at that drawing and think that the lasso ends abruptly at the edge of the frame. Instead, they “see” that lasso as extending far beyond and hitting the bad guy in the face, even though those elements are not actually in the picture. The human brain is smart and fills in the gaps.
As writers, we can use closure to our advantage by being deliberate in what we crop into (and out of) the picture we present our readers. We don’t need to show mundane, repetitive actions, because readers can infer that characters do normal “human” things like commute, shower, sleep, eat meals, or go to the bathroom.
In fact, when we put these routine moments on the page, readers may expect something out of the ordinary to occur. If you’re going to describe something mundane and repetitive in a character’s life, there needs to be something significant about this particular instance that justifies including it in the frame of your story. Trust that your reader will fill in the blanks otherwise. This ties closely to the idea of negative space.
If you’ve ever taken an art class, you’ve likely heard teachers talk about negative space, which is the space around an object as opposed to the space occupied by the object itself. In drawing classes, I always thought it a mild form of torture when the professor would force us to sketch an object not by looking at the thing itself, but by filling in the negative space, the air around it.
While drawing negative space in an art class might make your eyes feel like staring at one of those “magic picture” 3D images, it can be a worthwhile exercise for writers when looking at their novels. In writing terms, the negative space of your story is anything that happens off the page. This might include scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, things that happen to supporting characters when the main character isn’t around, and so forth. Yet even though these moments do not appear in the final manuscript, they still affect the story that ends up on the page.
Just like you can look at negative space and “see” the object within it, similarly those negative space story elements can influence choices you make in the story itself. When you examine your story, don’t just look at what’s on the page. Look for what’s missing, what’s not being said.
There are so many design principles that apply to writers and storytelling and I can’t wait to introduce you to more of them in my next article.
Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the forthcoming book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2016). Join the word nerd community at DIYMFA.com/join.