Thursday, September 4, 2008

negative space in writing scenes

The concept of negative space might be as useful to writing as it is to art. I was thinking about this while trying to make a watercolor painting come alive. It involves some of the same challenges as making a scene in fiction writing come alive.

In a certain style of painting a nude figure in watercolor, we might start with a pencil drawing on a white sheet of paper, paint a light value color wash over the entire paper, following with a flesh color wash that covers and extends out from the nude drawing. Before these washes are fully dry, another light value wash might be brushed over the figure and surrounding areas. All of the hues and values are now established, but it’s a hodgepodge of color without any real focus. Perhaps like a scene in the beginning of a story, where several characters, objects, or activities may be vying equally on the page for the reader's attention.

Let's return to the painting. To "pop" the figure forward, I can apply a medium value (darker) color to the "negative space" outside the nude figure. The lighter, flesh-colored figure begins to emerge and draws the viewer's attention. But perhaps the effect is too strong, and the figure now seems too remote from the background. So, I wash over part of the figure with the same, medium value color. The lighter, flesh tone of the figure can still be seen through the darker wash, but that covered part of the figure is now partly subsumed into the background. My painting has become more integrated, but I'm concerned that I've lost some needed focus where I've washed over the figure. I go back in and apply a still darker value to the negative space outside selected parts of the subsumed figure. That's better; more of the figure emerges. The figure has become the main focus of the painting, and the related flow of washes surrounding the figure adds to the viewing experience.

To explore this idea, here's the opening to a story:

Geronimo and Corky, shirtless and wearing sweatbands, edge toward the red brick wall, pounding a handball against it as they advance.


Greg, a slender, dark-haired boy sits on the sidewalk with his back against the wall and watches the game. He's wearing a frame without any lenses, and a burnt cork mustache. He turns and looks as a city bus hisses to a stop at the corner curb. Luke gets off the bus, gripping a backpack over one shoulder, and walks over to stand and watch the game.

Okay, we've got some initial light color washes over the complete scene; a couple of areas of interest, perhaps, but nothing too compelling. Let's pop a main character forward by brushing some dark washes in the negative space around him. Luke is our man.

Corky hits the ball to the sweet spot in the corner, and it rolls back across the sidewalk, unplayable. Point and game—Corky throws up his arms and lets out a whoop. Geronimo pulls off his sweatband, curses, then squats beside Greg and flings an arm around his shoulder. He holds the struggling Greg in an arm lock, kisses him on the forehead, and looks up at Luke.

"He's mine; go get one of your own," Geronimo says, smiling. "I hear they got loads of these little darlings up at that school of yours?"

"Yeah, ease up on him; Greg's a little strange, but not that strange," Luke says. "He grew up with Corky and me and you don't think about that, but you should."

Well, that darkens the surrounding negative space, but I don't want Luke to pop too glaringly out of his background. I'll brush some of the darker wash from the negative space over part of Luke, and make him relate more to the background.

"Maybe you're not one of us anymore," Geronimo says. "Maybe you've gotten too good for us?"

"Nah," Corky says, sweeping up a gray tee-shirt from the sidewalk to mop sweat from his face and torso. "As long as the cops are still looking for who did the kid in the Grover Heights rumble, we've all got to stick together. Luke is in it as much as any of us. We're each other's alibi."

Well, that's enough of an exercise for now. Luke is shown as part of the darker background, but pops forward to a point of greater interest as character qualities of education and sensitivity are suggested.

Two art forms, writing and painting, and each may have similar scene management techniques.

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