Writing in the Negative

When physicists first discovered the existence of black holes, they identified these gravitational oddities not by physically seeing them, but by noticing how neighboring celestial bodies reacted in their presence. It was enough to compel scientists to rethink their observations, to realize contemporary models were missing a component — albeit one not visible to the human eye.

Fiction works the same way. Sometimes the meaning or theme of a story doesn’t avail itself from what’s said or directly explained — but from what isn’t. Sometimes a story’s meaning can be inferred by observing repeated interactions in the narrative milieu, or elements that orbit around a leitmotif that is, oddly, missing from the narrative.

It's a relatively common trick. Writers can draw distinction to what’s on the page by repeatedly revolving around ideas or concepts that are left unwritten. The missing element becomes a centerpiece, revolved around by the other elements in the story, making its absence that much more profound. Done properly, writers can use this negative space to their advantage if they want to highlight a critical void between what’s said and what’s implied, what’s present and what’s missing, what should have been but wasn’t.

Probably the most classic instance of negative space in narrative can be found in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story, a young couple embarks on a trip where the female plans to have an abortion. As they wait for their train they talk about a number of things: the beers they’re drinking, the appearance of the surrounding hills. But while it’s clearly on both their minds, the word “abortion” is never mentioned. Here, a noted discord is established between what’s being said and what’s obviously being thought. What has made it onto the page thus, is simply an echo, a trace of the story’s missing nucleus, which is now delicately and deliberately characterized by a shared sense of profound loss.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple."

The narrative voice you choose to tell your story is a lot like a camera lens: it dictates what we see and what we don’t. As a storytelling tool, film has a wonderful habit of simply showing what’s on the screen and then using a series of transitional devices to move us to the next scene. Understanding this, we see the expository qualities of writing can sometimes put literature at a disadvantage. You’d never see a movie captioning a scene with text to inform the viewer of what’s going on, but in writing this happens all the time. Literature’s habit of explaining every detail can have a wearying effect on a story.

You’d never see a movie captioning a scene with text to inform the viewer of what’s going on, but in writing this happens all the time. Literature’s habit of explaining every detail can have a wearying effect on a story.

In Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” a man removes his personal belongings from his house and holds an ad hoc yard sale on his front lawn. A young couple passing the house strikes up a conversation with the man and begins buying his property, one piece at a time, while the man happily pours them drinks and persuades them to stay and listen to music.

There’s no doubt Carver was a masterful writer, but I’ll bet he would’ve made a great director as well, because he understood the importance of telling a story without showing his hand and needlessly explaining the thematic blueprint under the surface. Carver was a writer who understood the power of silence.

In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way that had in the bedroom – nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
His side, her side.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.

There are so many questions here. Why is the character putting his furniture on the lawn? Why is he setting up things exactly the way they were in his bedroom? What happened to his wife? Why is he selling his possessions for such little money? A less experienced writer might inundate us with back-story and explain what happened in the character’s past, or why he feels compelled to rid himself of his worldly belongings. But Carver is smart enough to realize that by drawing our attention to what’s missing, we’re more inclined to place a careful, sympathetic eye on what’s left.

Most good stories have a mystery component. That isn’t to say they feature square-jawed detectives eluding double-crossing dames in urban dystopias. It means there’s an unanswered, pending question that compels the reader and pulls us forward. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: purposefully leaving details out of your story doesn’t make you sound more “literary.” That’s not what’s being proposed here. Working in negative spaces isn’t an attempt to be cryptic. On the contrary, there’s a high precision to it. When your story revolves around a distinct, pending question that lies off the page it can charge the words that have made it into print. It’s not a matter of obfuscating, but of using the properties of opposites to identify and empower existing profiles.

A master of this technique is short story writer and poet James Lasdun. Lasdun is often deliberately sparse in the details he grants the reader; it seems his narratives are seeded with questions. The elements that make it to the page somehow soak up these missing qualities, and naturally, we begin questioning what's happening beneath the surface and forming patterns based on those questions. The resulting text offers a dreamlike meta-reality where we're forced to question the boundaries between light and dark, real and imaginary, asleep and awake, fact and fiction.

In his short story “The Bugle,” a young man returns home from Japan to discover the nanny who took care of him as a boy has inexplicably returned, but is now taking care of his aging parents. Having been gone three years, the man discovers his home is now a mysteriously different place: bedrooms have been moved, doors are mysteriously locked, and the domineering nanny has begun taking old family items from the attic, which she burns casually in an incinerator in the backyard. The story is governed by a dreamlike eeriness that seems to suggest how memories, and the past, can haunt the present.

He opened the living room door, then thought for a moment, and closed it without entering. He doubled back, and tiptoed up the stairs. Only when he reached the second landing, where his parents’ bedroom was situated, did it strike him as laughable that he should feel he had to tiptoe up the stairs in his own home. He strode over to the bedroom door, knocked loudly once, and burst in with a cry of greeting.
There were dustsheets on everything. The great brass bed, the lacquered bamboo tables on either side of it, the plump little sofa by the window — all were shrouded in a pale grey drift of cloth.
The air was musty. Light billows of dust scudded away from his feet as he moved. He raised the sheet from an object beside him. It was the nutwood escritoire from which his mother had run her affairs. He tried the little drawers and hidden chambers that honeycombed its interior. They were all locked. A distinct feeling of weakness came over him. He crossed to the window. A large incinerator was smoldering on the back lawn, just where a japonica bush had been. The ground beneath it was scorched in a black circle.
A voice startled him —
‘They don’t sleep here anymore.’

Practically every element here is characterized by an absence: missing parents, locked doors, empty rooms, a charred earth. The character’s displacement highlights the uncomfortable boundaries between his current life and his past. The past has never disappeared; it’s there the entire time: under dustsheets, behind locked doors, manifesting itself in plumes of incinerator smoke. 

Finally, working in negative spaces can be wonderful for subtext. Writers can posit absurdist juxtapositions of truth and falsehood, artificial and natural, frugal and excessive, logic and nonsense, all of which offer poignant commentaries on the world in which we live. In Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Second Bakery Attack,” a newlywed couple awakens with an unspeakable appetite, even though they’d eaten dinner just several hours before. As they forage a nearly empty refrigerator, the man recalls a time when he was younger and constantly hungry, which once drove him to hold up a bakery for food. The wife begins to see their hunger as a sort of curse, and suggests they hold up another bakery to break the spell. They end up robbing a McDonald’s instead.

We drove for a half hour, found an empty parking lot by a building, and pulled in. There we ate hamburgers and drank our Cokes. I sent six Big Macs down to the cavern of my stomach, and she ate four. That left twenty Big Macs in the back seat. Our hunger--that hunger that had felt as if it could go on forever--vanished as the dawn was breaking. The first light of the sun dyed the building's filthy walls purple and made a giant SONY BETA ad tower glow with painful intensity. Soon the whine of highway truck tires was joined by the chirping of birds. The American Armed Forces radio was playing cowboy music. We shared a cigarette. Afterward, she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Still was it really necessary for us to do this?” I asked.
“Of course it was!” With one deep sigh, she fell asleep against me. She felt as soft and as light as a kitten.

Like a lot of Murakami’s work this story is steeped in surrealism, but it’s especially fine tuned here. Their mutual hunger, which is sated by stealing far more Big Macs than they could possibly eat, seems to be a pretty obvious comment on modern consumerism. Murakami’s penchant for sparseness in exposition offers miles of subtext below the surface; the direct action in the story bridges layers of parallel meaning beneath. Nothing’s missing in a story that asks you to look beyond the page. You just have to read between the lines to find it.

Original photo by Honou

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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alisia's picture
alisia from Byron, NY is reading The Goldfinch by: Donna Tartt February 22, 2012 - 2:35pm

Very informative post, complete with great examples. Thank you.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 22, 2012 - 4:09pm

I was really hoping for another column about grammar mistakes. But this column was a nice consolation prize. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. February 23, 2012 - 9:44am

I love this column.  Great advice and perfect examples.  Carver did this a lot in his stories.  Hempel does this a few times to great effect, but it's much too early for me to think of an example - I just remember being amazed by the story she didn't tell about something obviously of great importance to the narrator.

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter February 23, 2012 - 2:07pm

This is one of those articles that every writer should print out and stick some where handy. They should revisit it often and before they approach the final draft. It's a sharp knife and useful for killing.

Excellent-Jon Gingrich

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter February 23, 2012 - 2:35pm

I've often heard people say, "I don't see what's so great about Hemingway."

And I've always had the opinion; it's what you don't see, that's exactly the point. It may be hard for some to see what's so great about his writing, but it's equally hard to find anything wrong with it. And you can't say that about very many writers.

Rose Bogan's picture
Rose Bogan February 1, 2022 - 5:25am

The negative voice is subtler. It emphasizes what didn't happen or what isn't being done, and it is often used to make a point. It can also be more emphatic and more direct than the positive voice. The positive voice often softens things a bit, because we don't like to openly contradict someone or say no to a request. It is also necessary to apply some latest fashion trends too which you can learn from https://masterbundles.com/fresh-design-trends/ article. The overall impact of always learning and implementing new things can be