Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book as Experience--Week 2: Space, Part 1

Every so often I wake up in the morning with math on the brain. Today was one of those days so I decided to start my post with a theorem.
Gabi's Tension-Expectation Theorem: Tension = Expectations

When we write, we establish patterns for the reader. These patterns--if repeated enough times--will raise the reader's expectations. When we raise expectations but then turn around and give the reader something she wasn't expecting, we create tension.

And Here's a Corollary: There are no accidents in writing. If you're going to create tension, do it with intent.

This Theorem will come up again and again as we look at "Book as Experience." The writing techniques we will discuss are all tools we can use to raise the reader's expectations, and break these expectations if we so choose.

Which brings us to our first technique...

Today's Topic: Space (Part 1: Positive and Negative Space)

In design, we talk about positive space and negative space. These are not value judgments; positive space does not mean space that it is "good" and negative space does not mean "bad" space. Rather, positive and negative space refer to the space occupied by an object versus the space around the object.

Positive Space: This is the space occupied by the object.

Negative Space: The space around an object. Note that by looking at the space around the object, you can gain information about the object itself.

A great example of positive and negative space at play, of course, is the faces/vase picture (shown below). Do you see two white silhouettes on a black background or a black vase in front of a white background? It all depends on which object is the positive space and which is negative space. Notice also that it is virtually impossible to see both as positive space at the same time. In order to see the vase, you have to let the faces disappear into the background, and to see the faces, the vase must become negative space.

At this point, you're probably thinking: "Thanks for the design lesson, Gabi, but can we get to the writing now?" Here's the thing: whenever we write a story, we have to take positive and negative space into account. Think of the positive space as the space occupied by the story; this means the negative space encompasses all the other "stuff" that never makes it into the story proper. As writers, we need to be ever conscious about the interplay between positive and negative "story space," making active decisions as to what we will include and what we will leave out.

Axiom #2: Negative space can tell you as much about your story as does positive space.

Rosencrantz-&-Guildenstern-Are-Dead Exercise: (A study in positive and negative space)Select a minor character from your story. It doesn't matter which character it is, as long as it is not the POV character. Follow this character "off stage" and write a short scene (2-3 pages). The idea here is to examine the negative space around your story with an eye to better understanding the story itself.

As for the Theorem from the beginning of this post, when we write a piece, we establish rules for the reader regarding the positive and negative space of the story. If, however, we flip the positive and negative space, this creates tension for the reader. If we pull this swap artfully, we can create conflict and increase the reader's interest, but if we are not careful this type of switch can confuse the reader and be disastrous to our story.

The key is to understand how positive and negative space work and make them work for you.

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