A book club I’m part of recently discussed The Ruins by Scott Smith. It’s not a book I would have finished reading based on the first 50 pages, but sticking with it afforded me insight into what a narrative voice can do. The story is about a group of young tourists who venture into an off-map area of an archeological dig in Mexico. They find themselves trapped, unable to move on because of guardsmen on horseback threatening them with arrows if they move down the path or retreat back. They are stuck there. Their problems increase when the vines around them gradually take on characteristics of mandrakes, drinking their bodily fluids and eventually speaking in human voices.
At no point was I personally afraid during the reading of this book, yet this is a good specimen of contemporary horror. Here are some qualities of the book which I laud in the horror genre:
• A slow burn.
• Misfortune meted out in proportion to vice and stupidity, and the age-old warning that sacred spaces should not be disturbed.
• An antagonist who does not communicate. This is extremely difficult to pull off, and arguably The Ruins does not pull it off, but think of the great horror villains who don’t speak: Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and the alien invaders from Independence Day.
• A progression of the enemy’s power which increases exponentially. At first the vines seem to move toward things, then they laugh, then they speak, and then and then! This offers an incline of tension which is dastardly fun to take part in.
Though the elements of good horror are here, something is missing, something that could have been awesome: the use of Negative Space.
This is a term I’m working on applying to writing, not just visual art. It’s the space between objects, or in written stories, it’s the space between events which can be underlined by the setting. In horror, negative space is where tension blooms, the pacing between action beats where the reader is given a chance to feel afraid.
To illustrate, on the morning of September 11, 2001 I was on a highway in Connecticut. I was driving to New York City when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. The news report on the radio said so. Here’s a rundown of the facts and my acceptance of them:
1. First tower struck.
2. That’s bad. I hope no one got hurt. People in The City tend to begin the workday late, and they stay late into the night with their Yankee work ethic. But what about the custodians?
3. Second tower struck.
4. My mind is stalling, like a car trying to get up a snowy hill in winter.
5. How could this happen?
6. What does it mean?
7. This must be an act of war. On my country and my faith.
There is more to the story: my inability to place a phone call, the abject lack of information on the radio, the sheer not-knowing of the situation that increased with every minute.
The horror didn’t hit me at first, and the experience was made worse by my lack of access to a TV. We live in a time when we need to see video footage to prove something happened. Without it, acceptance of the truth becomes all the more challenging. Note that I chose to be naïve at the first tower’s hit. I tried to convince myself that no one had been hurt, eventually coming around to the probability that only a few had been hurt, all the while attempting to mitigate a new reality I couldn’t accept. I carried that mitigation through the entire day. The real problem was with the second tower strike. Something beyond my understanding of the world was happening. I had decided to say a prayer with the first strike, but I could delay it until I was off the road and in a private space. But the immediacy of the second strike increased the urgency of my need to pray.
Point 4 is where negative space fills my recollection of the story. This is where horror grew. I had just been reading about Mother Mary as the patron of the Americas, and the fact that no international war had devastated the land under her protection (with the exception of Hawaii, a geographically separate land). Faced with new data filling my head, everything turned upside down, and I couldn’t make sense of it.
This negative space occupies our lives any time we’re presented with loss. The death of a loved one, or even a romantic break-up. There’s always that moment when you cannot accept it. Narrative conventions require that characters must be given a trigger to come to a new idea, but in reality, this suspended time requires no trigger — realization simply coalesces. Fiction is not reportage in the sense of recording how things happen; fiction distills and inserts auxiliary untruths in order to convey meaning. If I told this story as outlined above, it would not capture its meaning. Sometimes neophyte writers design poorly written plots where characters make decisions out of the blue because they wish to show how things happen in the Real World, but fiction is about crafting secondary worlds that tell stories better than any Real-World accounting ever could.
The problem with The Ruins, and this is no strike against the author since the composition itself is flawless, is how the progression of the vine’s abilities are laid out deductively, instead of inductively. There is no final surprise, because the progression of the vines’ abilities is patterned in a predictable way. This is a double-edged sword, really, because the best stories give away their endings from the start. Horror requires some surprises, and The Ruins does not deliver many.
So how can writers address or use this negative space?
There are a few ways. First, we can broaden the pacing in order to give the readers a chance to comprehend the situation. This is like the pause after a comedian’s joke to let it add up in the minds of the audience. This is not to say we should add fluff in these spaces, but it is a good point to let the characters reflect or notice other things about their surroundings (things which relate directly to the ending of the story).
Second, we can draw out the moment between epiphanies to examine physiological changes in the characters. Are they breathing? Are they doing something mindless and dangerous?
Third, we can consider what must happen next in order to shift into the correct gear to move forward. One of the things The Ruins avoids is explaining plans, almost to the point that the whole narrative feels like a dream. Instead of a discussion on what to do next, there are arguments on what can be done followed by personal discord, followed by someone taking action without offering a reason. I found myself going back to see where I missed transitions, but I didn’t miss anything. There are no transitions, which gives the story a dreamlike quality aiming to be a nightmare.
The unseen negative space
We don’t notice when a headache goes away.
One of the most interesting techniques of The Ruins is its complete lack of scientific explanation for how the vines are able to make sounds. It’s something the reader simply accepts. I didn’t notice that I hadn’t noticed it until the vines took on more sophisticated abilities to produce sound. This is brilliantly done. Things are scary when the unknown is unknowable. This is also why ageless philosophical questions are so stimulating. Contemplating fractals or infinity can thrust us into a suspended moment of negative space, entranced by our inability to understand.
An Exercise in Negative Spacing
Recall a specific moment when evidence was presented to you that shifted the way you operate in the world.
1. Make a list of your discursive thoughts, and be as granular as possible. How did one thought lead to the next? Where did you stall? What notions did you dismiss and why? What was your emotional response to each fragmented thought?
2. Go over the list and number it if it’s out of chronological order.
3. Circle the moment of stalling, and the most impactful keywords surrounding it in the rest of the list.
4. Reflect on the conclusion you drew, and how it changed you. Write out what you glean from it.
Bonus exercise for writers: grab your current work-in-progress. Identify the turning points and reflect on the Negative Spaces between them. Can they be expanded? Are they too expansive in relation to the overall pacing? Are they there at all?
Negative Space is essential for presenting a complete piece of fiction. It pulls the mind away from the surface and allows readers to digest the story. Just as the eye is transported across a canvas via negative space, so too can readers move through turning points with the vehicle of literary negative space.
Bio: Sarah Yasin is a writing workshop leader and retreat facilitator in the state of Maine. She has pieces in various literary journals, including Lydwine Journal, Glass, and the Mad Scientist Journal. Visit her author page at Amazon.