Screen Porch

Negative Space in Fiction


Meredith Moore

For this post, we welcome Meredith Moore to Screen Porch. Moore is a Univeristy of the South graduate and the Program Coodinator of Graduate Studies at Vanderbilt University, and she serves on the Porch's Associate Board. Moore spoke with Holly Goddard Jones, Professor of Fiction at UNC Greensboro and author of four books, including her most recent collection of short stories, Antipodes, about negative space in fiction. "I have attended Holly’s craft lectures twice, and both times the material resonated with me in unforgettable ways," she says. "Holly has a knack for teaching about writing in a way that is accessible, but captures complex ideas. I was honored that she agreed to let me pick her brain about an expertise of hers."

Meredith Moore: What have you been reading lately and what do you recommend?

Holly Goddard Jones: Well, I'm teaching a class called Structure of Fiction at UNCG [and] I just finished Ann Patchett's The Dutch House, which is kind of a funny coincidence given the Nashville connection. So I just finished that and, you know, it was great. I'm looking forward to that discussion [in class]. And for the topic of negative spaces, The Dutch House is kind of a good one to think about—and I still have to go back through a second time and frame my thoughts on it—but it moves around in time a lot. Have you read it?

MM: I did, yeah.

HGJ: Yeah. So, you know, it moves around in time a lot and there are fairly hard splices between the time jumps. She does a lot with those juxtapositions. You'll be sitting in the car with the narrator and his sister just after a flashback, and you have to kind of situate yourself in that setting and figure out why you're there.

What I'm also reading now, and this is more just for me, is We Spread by Iain Reid which is another good one for talking about negative space because his prose style is so austere. If you pick it up and flip through it, it's full of white space. But [the protagonist is] an elderly woman who seems like she may be in the early stages of dementia, though you're not sure. So [it has] a pervading sense that something is off.

MM: Awesome. I think the sort of flow you were talking about with Dutch House taking you in and out, leads into another thing, like; [in] what ways does negative space serve to create suspense, and in what ways may it take away from it?

HGJ: I mean, maybe it's the most fundamental question that we bring to the text as writers: What do I put in and what do I leave out?

George Saunders, in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is reading different Russian writers and [writing] essays reflecting on [their] stories. The first essay is called “A Page at a Time”. He gives you the Chekhov story "In the Cart" and then pauses between each page of the story to ruminate on what Chekhov has been doing so far. And one of the things he talks about—as a reason for that reading approach—is that a story is a set of narrowing possibilities. As soon as you read a page, the possibilities have narrowed because you have a character, a location, a sense of time. The story before you began could have been about anything, but now it's about something. And each page narrows those possibilities.

The way you utilize negative space also narrows possibilities because it announces a stylistic approach of some kind. Like that Iain Reid book; the fact that you are getting these very clipped, aphoristic, short paragraphs in simplistic syntax, by a character whose cognitive abilities aren't clear, says something about how the writer lives in the world of his stories.

Negative space specifically can be a tool for using the reader's imagination…to your advantage as a writer. We fill in what we don't know with feelings, and those feelings can be very powerful, especially if they're not yet connected to something specific. So that's the advantage of negative space, is that you can use the reader's abstract feelings to guide them. As soon as you become specific, it's not abstract, and the reader might not feel what you want them to feel.

MM: In one [example of this], you had taken a scene from Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation and tried to make it worse by…adding dialogue tags, interior monologue, and gestures. And earlier we were talking about flow. In what ways do you feel like dialogue tags end up interrupting flow? Have there been places where you're like, Oh, this definitely needs more or less dialogue tags?

HGJ: So the passage I did that with was a phone conversation between the focal character, this depressed young woman, and a psychiatrist she has found in the yellow pages. So immediately, in a phone conversation, it's not likely that a third party [will be] interrupting. [You have] one character who's the first-person narrator, so the other speaker is always going to be obvious. And also that other speaker—this psychiatrist she is talking to—has such a clear manner of speaking that there's never any mistaking her for the narrator.

So, in that scene, Moshfegh recognized that dialogue tags didn't have [to convey] who was speaking. And because she's operating in a kind of comedic mode…the hypothetical additions I made to that scene were disrupting the comedy. The fun of that scene is just kind of going along with the weirdness and not questioning it too much, and my point was that putting in too much stuff around the dialogue made the tone seem conventional and earnest and undermined the humor. Now in a different kind of scene, a different writer doing something different tonally, that kind of grounding [with dialog tags] might be really important.

Negative space specifically can be a tool for using the reader's imagination…to your advantage as a writer. We fill in what we don't know with feelings, and those feelings can be very powerful, especially if they're not yet connected to something specific.

MM: So, longform fiction versus short fiction. You write both. Is there one that you prefer?

HGJ: That's tough. I don't know if there is one. I think it depends so much on just what I happen to be working on and how it's going…So right now I'm working on a novel, and I think I like the pace of working on a novel. What I don't like is just the huge anxiety that I constantly feel about whether I am actually going to ever finish this thing, and is it worth the time I've invested in it. And so, yeah, so it's kind of a love-hate relationship.

With stories, every now and then I get [one] out of me and I write it in a fever pitch of a few days…like I have to just sit down and do nothing but work on it. I couldn't live my entire life that way, I mean, especially now that I have kids. But, man, it feels good when it's happening. Yeah.

MM: Yeah, I think you gave voice to a lot of my feelings as well. Where else in texts have you caught that negative space hasn't been used on purpose? Did you recognize anywhere where the advice to trim was flouted in favor of tone or plot charge?

HGJ: I think there's a famous quote of Raymond Carver’s—that he knew he was finished writing a story when he was putting back in the commas he had taken out, or something like that.

And there was a kind of infamous essay published in The Atlantic in the early aughts called “A Reader's Manifesto,” and it's a sort of interesting document. One of the author's theses was that…the literary community would divide people up into feminine and masculine, and celebrate them for embodying certain qualities. So [masculine] was the lean and fit and taut, no extra adornment, whereas the feminine was less restrained, less self-disciplined. So I initially felt disinterested in trying hard to use negative space [when] it felt like this heroic and arbitrary exercise in self-denial—like, I'm not going to put in this thing because it's not 100% necessary. I think I've gotten interested in a more expansive definition of negative space than that. It's not just about cutting every single thing that is extraneous. It's thinking about how what you leave out can strategically serve what you put in. And in that way, I see that every good work of fiction utilizes it.


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