How to Write Better Descriptions Using Negative Space

The Power of Negative Space

A late spring breeze drifts through the open window of your studio, carrying the scent of freshly cut grass and faint cigarette smoke. You reposition your easel to better catch the light. Then, looking at the canvas, you dip your brush into black paint, and you paint the silhouette of a vase.

You step back to see your handiwork.

On the canvas is a vase and two faces. You only painted the vase, but the untouched white canvas presses in on the edges of the black paint, appearing to form the profiles of two faces.

You’ve painted Rubin’s Vase, an illusion that uses negative space (the unpainted canvas) to imply shapes and images. It shows how with just a few brush strokes, you’re able to imply just as much as you explicitly create.

That’s the power of a line — and to harness it is an advantage, whether you’re painting a picture, or writing a description in a story.

Writing Descriptions like Brush Strokes

As writers, we’ll never perfectly convey the images in our heads, because our descriptions rely on the imaginations of our readers to come to life. We can try to fix this by packing a description with excessive details, but that often just bloats the image, which bores and overwhelms, rather than stimulates, the imagination.

That’s why you should try writing like an artist — in brush strokes.

And with negative space.

Instead of describing every painstaking detail of a scene or a character’s appearance, highlight instead a few key, unique details — building clear images, which in turn imply an entire scene in the negative space of your reader’s imagination.

Take, for example, my introduction above. The late spring breeze, drifting in through an open window, smelling of freshly cut grass and cigarette smoke. You, readjusting the easel to catch the natural lighting, dipping your brush into black paint.

I’m not describing everything in that scene. I’m just providing a few specific details and actions that activate your imagination and bring the scene to life. (That being said, if I were writing a full scene and not just a short blog intro, I’d probably provide a few more details, such as your paint-splattered jeans and boots; yesterday’s coffee, cold in a mug on the windowsill; your sheared fingernails and cuticles, shortened from a habit of nail biting.)

Writing better descriptions can be as simple as that. Here are a few tips for writing descriptions in this fashion:

  1. Ignore commonplace details. Readers are able to fill in common, assumed details (like hair/eye color) on their own, so prioritize details that make the setting or character unique.
  2. Write clear, descriptive actions. Above, I didn’t just write “you move to a better position,” I wrote, “You reposition your easel to better catch the light.” I said very little about the easel, but now you’re picturing it all the same, likely with your hands on its wooden leg and brace, and you’re seeing the canvas brighten with natural lighting as you move it closer to the window. But I didn’t say all those things: I only offered a few specific nouns and verbs, and your imagination filled in and extrapolated the rest.
  3. Write as much (or as little) as space and style dictate. Like I wrote above, I kept this post’s intro description short, because I wanted to usher you into the body of the content. A longer description would have hindered that goal. In a full scene, you may take more time to really breathe life into the setting or character. Or you might not; never forget to factor in your personal aesthetic and narrative goals.
  4. Feel free to go overboard in draft one. When painting, you can’t easily take back a brush stroke — but in writing you can. So feel free to write excessively in draft one, to get more details to choose from, and then whittle things back in revision.

Have questions or want me to elaborate further? Leave a comment below!

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