Writing in the Negative

COLUMN BY JON GINGERICH FEBRUARY 22, 2012

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."

or why he feels compelled to rid himself but in of his worldly belongings. Literature’s habit of explaining every detail can have a wearying effect on a story. nightstand and reading lamp on her side. pulls us forward. Most good stories have a mystery component. one piece at a time. The elements that make it to the page somehow soak up these missing qualities. scene with In the kitchen. The resulting text offers a dreamlike meta-reality where we're forced to wearying question the boundaries between light and dark. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. You’d never see a movie captioning a scene with text to inform the viewer of what’s going on. It’s not a matter of obfuscating. it seems his narratives are seeded with questions. It means there’s an unanswered. But Carver is smart enough to realize that by drawing our attention to what’s missing. the man discovers his home is now a mysteriously different place: bedrooms have been moved. A young couple passing the house strikes up a conversation with the man and You’d never begins buying his property. pending question that lies off the page it can charge the words that have made it into print. what’s There are so many questions here. writing this sympathetic eye on what’s left. Except for that. asleep and awake. Understanding this. viewer of He considered this as he sipped the whiskey. we begin questioning can have a what's happening beneath the surface and forming patterns based on those questions. Working in negative spaces isn’t an attempt to be cryptic.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. doors are mysteriously locked. see a movie There’s no doubt Carver was a masterful writer. fact and fiction.” That’s not what’s Literature’s being proposed here. real and imaginary. explaining A master of this technique is short story writer and poet James Lasdun. he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite text to in his front yard. Having been gone three years. 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. there’s a high precision to it. while the man happily pours them drinks and persuades them to stay and listen to music. pending question that compels the reader and the time. but is now taking care of his aging parents.” a young man returns home from Japan to discover the nanny who took care of him as a boy has inexplicably returned. When your story revolves around a habit of distinct. His side. 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. money? A less experienced writer might inundate us with back-story and explain what happened in the character’s past. we’re more inclined to place a careful. As a storytelling tool. things inform the looked much the way that had in the bedroom – nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed. Carver was a writer who understood the power of silence. but in writing this happens all the time. On the contrary. In his short story “The Bugle. her side. and naturally. we see the expository qualities of writing can sometimes put literature at a disadvantage. because he understood the importance of telling a story captioning a without showing his hand and needlessly explaining the thematic blueprint under the surface. 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 going on. Lasdun is every detail often deliberately sparse in the details he grants the reader. but I’ll bet he would’ve made a great director as well. but of using the properties of opposites to identify and empower existing profiles. That isn’t to say they feature happens all square-jawed detectives eluding double-crossing dames in urban dystopias. 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. .

seems to be a pretty obvious comment on modern consumerism. He tried the little drawers and hidden chambers that honeycombed its interior. which she burns casually in an incinerator in the backyard. A distinct feeling of weakness came over him. and the past. then thought for a moment. artificial and natural. Our hunger--that hunger that had felt as if it could go on forever--vanished as the dawn was breaking. the man recalls a time when he was younger and constantly hungry.and the domineering nanny has begun taking old family items from the attic. and she ate four. It was the nutwood escritoire from which his mother had run her affairs. A large incinerator was smoldering on the back lawn. the lacquered bamboo tables on either side of it. and pulled in. The ground beneath it was scorched in a black circle. They were all locked. Nothing’s missing in a story that asks you to look beyond the page. Light billows of dust scudded away from his feet as he moved. can haunt the present. locked doors. and suggests they hold up another bakery to break the spell. empty rooms. He doubled back. all of which offer poignant commentaries on the world in which we live. which is sated by stealing far more Big Macs than they could possibly eat. You just have to read between the lines to find it. There we ate hamburgers and drank our Cokes. frugal and excessive. He raised the sheet from an object beside him. . Their mutual hunger. just where a japonica bush had been. knocked loudly once. They end up robbing a McDonald’s instead. There were dustsheets on everything. He opened the living room door. and burst in with a cry of greeting. Writers can posit absurdist juxtapositions of truth and falsehood. Like a lot of Murakami’s work this story is steeped in surrealism. it’s there the entire time: under dustsheets. the direct action in the story bridges layers of parallel meaning beneath. working in negative spaces can be wonderful for subtext. The past has never disappeared. We shared a cigarette. where his parents’ bedroom was situated. The character’s displacement highlights the uncomfortable boundaries between his current life and his past. manifesting itself in plumes of incinerator smoke. found an empty parking lot by a building. and tiptoed up the stairs. The story is governed by a dreamlike eeriness that seems to suggest how memories.’ Practically every element here is characterized by an absence: missing parents. Soon the whine of highway truck tires was joined by the chirping of birds. logic and nonsense. the plump little sofa by the window — all were shrouded in a pale grey drift of cloth. “Of course it was!” With one deep sigh. and closed it without entering. Finally. He crossed to the window. Afterward. She felt as soft and as light as a kitten. We drove for a half hour. she fell asleep against me. The wife begins to see their hunger as a sort of curse. even though they’d eaten dinner just several hours before. “Still was it really necessary for us to do this?” I asked. a charred earth. That left twenty Big Macs in the back seat. I sent six Big Macs down to the cavern of my stomach. As they forage a nearly empty refrigerator. 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. behind locked doors. The American Armed Forces radio was playing cowboy music. Murakami’s penchant for sparseness in exposition offers miles of subtext below the surface. which once drove him to hold up a bakery for food. Only when he reached the second landing. did it strike him as laughable that he should feel he had to tiptoe up the stairs in his own home. but it’s especially fine tuned here. she rested her head on my shoulder. The great brass bed. In Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Second Bakery Attack. He strode over to the bedroom door.” a newlywed couple awakens with an unspeakable appetite. A voice startled him — ‘They don’t sleep here anymore. The air was musty.