Room to Breathe: Negative Space in Writing.

“Space is the breath of art.”

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Nowadays, a lot of us have had the experience of reading a fast-paced, action-packed book that jumps from one disaster to the next with no room to breathe. And according to most writing advice, escalating plot tension is the “correct” way to write. But it is not a reflection of real life. While many events may happen to us in a row, there is also downtime between events for us to grieve or process changes. There is also a baseline “before”, a status quo before things change. Life before the zombie apocalypse /oppressive government regime/ regulation of magic / dragon extinction, etc…

In a book, these “before” and “during” spaces give the reader room to breathe. A temporary release of the tension allows readers to process what they read and to form strong attachments to your characters. Repeat after me: A story needs downtime. A story needs room to breathe.

On the surface “cut out what doesn’t progress the plot” seems like sound writing advice, but your character development suffers as a result. The reader sees how your characters act or react under duress, but not really who they are. Why are we invested in these people? Why do we care? If you spend all your time moving from one misadventure to the next, the average reader doesn’t have time to form connections.

Art – including writing – needs space!

Negative Space.

Space, [defined] as one of the classic seven elements of art, refers to the distances or areas around, between, and within components of a piece” (thoughtco). In art, this is also sometimes referred to as “negative space”. Negative space provides a framework for interpreting art. We need to know who the characters are when they’re relaxing just as much as when they’re in a life or death situation to understand the full picture.

While it seems like constant life-threatening situations would lead to nail-biting suspense, it frequently has the opposite effect. The reader gets bored because there’s nothing really at stake. It sounds harsh, but if you don’t connect to a character, you don’t really care whether they live or die. Constant survival mode mainly leads to reader exhaustion. Think of the modern concept of “news exhaustion” – where if we watch enough bad stories on the news, we unconsciously detach, losing our ability to empathize. While it may seem harsh, it’s a survival mechanism. We just don’t have the time or energy to care about everything and everyone all the time. So why should we care about your story, about your characters?

We need to see characters relaxed, vulnerable, goofing off with their friends. We need to see them in their natural environment. We need to see their day-to-day interactions with friends and family (or lack of interactions if they’re isolated). We need a baseline reading so we understand the difference between the character’s normal life and whatever is going on now. When the priority is survival, throwing in some emotional backstory isn’t going to fully resonate with the reader.

Downtime or negative space in a book is important to establishing a status quo. What could have been? What has changed for your character? What are they fighting for? What is at stake if they lose? How will their normal life change when they go back to it? If Tolkien never told us about the Shire, we’d never know what a brave, heroic undertaking it was for Hobbits to leave it, to go against their natural tendencies for comfort and security to face danger, the unknown and even, death.

It’s not enough for your character to wistfully reminisice about gardening while on the run from a murderer. Being told about the character’s past is not the same as experiencing it along with them. If we see our characters in their normal life, only to have that life brutally ripped away, we as readers, have an emotional gut response.

If you don’t give something to your readers to connect to in the first place, there’s nothing to take away.

Scene and Sequel.

A good way to regulate your pacing is the “scene and sequel” mode of writing. “Scene and sequel are two types of written passages used by authors to advance the plot of a story. Scenes propel a story forward as the character attempts to achieve a goal. Sequels provide an opportunity for the character to react to the scene, analyze the new situation, and decide upon the next course of action.” (wiki)

Say, your character fails to achieve their goal in the action scene. The villian flees! The shot misses its mark! The car breaks down en-route. Your character unexpectedly falls down a well. The sequel is an introspective state that follows, often just a period of sheer overwhelming emotion, followed by thought and finally, a decision about how to proceed. The sequel is the time for your character to regroup, to take stock of what’s been lost and to come up with a new plan of action.

Putting periods of downtime (sequels) after moments of action (scenes) allows your reader to experience not just the nail-biting action, but the emotional moments that follow, that really cement a reader’s connection to the characters.

These moments can also be a place to build your reader’s frustration and keep them reading towards a happy resolution. Why don’t these two characters just kiss already? When will the detective finally connect the clues to who the murderer is? Who is killing all the mermaids and why? Unresolved emotional plots are just as driving as unresolved action scenes.

Instead of just “don’t include the scenes that don’t progress the plot“…

Don’t include scenes that don’t progress the plot or the character.

Action without investment is boring. You don’t want the Too Fast, Too Furious of plots…two and a half hours of car-chase scenes and absolutely no reason to care about any of it. You don’t want your reader thinking, Let them all die in a ten car fiery pile-up. At least that would be mildly entertaining. You want them thinking, Oh no, this person I like is in danger!

That said, there is such a thing as unnecessary scenes that don’t advance the plot or the character. Downtime shouldn’t be your character brushing their teeth and putting on their sneakers (unless their sneakers provide some insight into the character or your world). The point isn’t just to insert some boring scenes after the action. It’s to form meaningful connections between your reader and your characters.

I’d love to hear more from you guys! Was this post helpful? Do you enjoy writing action scenes or emotional sequels more? Do your struggle with pacing? Have you ever had difficultly connecting with an “all-action” book before?

** I sourced some of my ideas from this Tumblr post.

Keep writing!

6 thoughts on “Room to Breathe: Negative Space in Writing.

  1. These are such awesome points; “the reader sees how your characters act or react under duress, but not really who they are” really resonated with me. Writing as a whole seems to have put so much emphasis on plot rather than character lately, which, just as you say, leaves the characters almost flat when they’re not in the middle of a great struggle. Great post!


    1. I’m such a fan of YA, but I’m finding so many YA books are sacrificing character-development for the sake of the plot. I’m such a character-driven writer, so I have the opposite problem – not enough action!

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Hope it was helpful. Thank you for taking the time to comment! x


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