Negative Space

Last week, I went to the Welcome to Night Vale touring live show, Ghost Stories. It was nice—I don’t get out to see live theater as much as I would like. Without giving anything away about the show’s plot, there were a few bold moments that stuck with me: bold uses of silence.

Why do I say bold?

One of the greatest things about live theater as opposed to, say, a movie, is that everything happens in real time. If somebody fucks up, oh well. There’s no “let’s go back and fix that in post.”

Thing is, this isn’t just about the performers—it’s true for the audience, too. Sharing a live show with other audience members can really enhance the experience. If a tense moment gets every person in the crowd is on the edge of their seat, you feel that. But if somebody is texting or crinkling a plastic wrapper, it can really ruin the mood.

So, when the star of the show punctuated an emotional moment with a long silence, I held my breath.

It was a very powerful moment. There were hundreds of people in the audience.

It only takes one asshole to ruin that moment.

But nobody did. There was no awkward cough. Nobody’s phone went off. We never once left the world of the show.

It was awesome.

And I’ve been thinking—as a writer, how must it have felt to put that down on paper?

Scary, was my first thought. It requires great faith in the actor, although with a lead like Cecil Baldwin, that’s the easy part. His stage presence is confident and professional, and he carried that moment with grace. The much more nerve-wracking part—at least, to me—is placing that kind of trust in the audience.

But that’s one of the things I like about Night Vale. It’s weird and satirical and even flippant, but it works because its emotional core is sincere and it trusts its audience to come along for the ride.

And you don’t need to be at one of their live shows to hear that. It might not be as obvious when there’s not a huge crowd of actual live people sitting in front of a stage, but every kind of media relies on the implicit relationship between the creators and the audience.

I’ve often seen this bit of advice for writers: don’t underestimate your audience. Assume that they are at least as smart as you are. The theory goes that if you treat your audience like they are smart and trustworthy, they will reward you. Reach out to them, and they’ll reach back to bridge the gap.

On the other hand, if you condescend to your audience, they can tell. And ho, boy, they’ll reward you for that, too! Haven’t we all been on the receiving end of that? How many TV shows have I turned off forever, rolling my eyes because they were lazy enough to think I’d stay for another poorly written love triangle? Another female character who has no motivation outside of the male lead?

The audience’s trust doesn’t come for free.

A silence like that—a leap of faith, a gamble where the reward is powerful storytelling—that has to be earned.

That’s all well and good, Bex, but I don’t write for the stage, or screen, or airwaves.

Fine. There’s some translating to be done, sure, but there are parallel structures in other mediums.

Take visual art, for example.

You don’t have silence, but you do have negative space. It can direct the eye, it can make a statement on its own, and it can throw the other parts of the piece into sharp relief. Any art teacher would tell you that negative space is an important part of composition. If too much is going on, the important parts will get crowded out.

And if you’re talking about something that’s not just auditory, but visual, too—like theater or film—don’t forget you can combine those things. A total blackout can have the same effect. More subtly, a dark stage or screen with just a little bit of light will draw focus very sharply.

What about video games, even?

There are a number of ways to throw a break in the action. Cut scenes are the most obvious thing to come to mind—because they’re where the designer has the most control. But for that reason, a lot of gamers get tired of cut scenes. Consider instead using the player’s action as punctuation. Maybe your focus is dialogue, so you punctuate it by making the player engage between lines. Or if you’re coming up on a critical action, give the player a break before you get there.

Play any Bioware games? There’s a reason that there’s usually a dialogue break between combat and critical plot decisions. That reason is pacing. Without some negative space between player actions, it can start to feel jarring or numbing. There are reasons to aim for those feelings—just be intentional about how you use your negative space.

Written prose seems like a very different animal, but the fundamentals are the same.

Pacing might come through syntax and punctuation, or through paragraphing, or even chapter breaks, but what is the written version of negative space?

The only literal analogue is a blank page, and those come rarely. The end of a chapter typically leaves blank space up to the end of the page—it’s hard to know for sure, since print layouts aren’t generally in the author’s control. Still, the end of any part of a written work—whether that’s a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word—is a small space for a breath. The longer the segment, the larger the breath. And, if you want to get really ambitious—

Well, remember what I started with. The larger your negative space, the harder you have to work to earn it. It’s very easy to overdo it.

But let me end with a quick success story.

I vividly remember when I finished Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut for the first time. (I’m about to spoil the end of the book, so if you haven’t read it, turn your virgin eyes away.) All that’s left of our planet is a frozen hellscape, and the narrator gives up on living. He describes how he’s finished writing his book—the book you are now reading—and is about to freeze to death. I turned the last page, and—

Nothing. That was it. Just a blank page.

But I was transported. The white space on that blank page had become a sea of ice. I hadn’t just finished a book by Kurt Vonnegut—I had finished a book I found in a dead man’s frozen hands, and now I was all alone in a desolate wasteland.

That extra page was just standard printing. I’m sure there was nothing intentional about it. But it enhanced the end of the book, already powerful, into something very visceral and real to me.

So… yes, you have to earn your negative space. But if you can pull something like thatoff, then more power to you.

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