What is story space? And what are its characteristics?
In art, say in the painting of a portrait, positive space is the area occupied by the subject in the canvas. The background, or surrounding material, represents its negative space.
Stories and scenes can also be thought of in this way. The action, events and dialogue can be seen as positive space. It is everything that is “viewed” on the screen, or read on the page. But the characters and the world they inhabit do not begin on page one and end on the last page. There is a sense in which they, and the world they inhabit, existed prior to the story commencing—and that they continue to exist after the book or movie has ended, at least in the mind of the reader or viewer. This constitutes negative space.
In The Godfather II, Michael sits alone, isolated from family and friends, staring into emptiness, yet we feel that his life has existed before and will continue past this point. In my novel, The Level, a man wakes up in a pitch-black space, bound to a chair, with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Clearly, the sense of a backstory is germane to our understanding of his situation—its negative space. This differentiates it from its positive space, which concerns itself with the “finite” past and the “here and now”.
“Positive and negative story space refers to how information is handled in a novel or screenplay. Is it directly provided by the plot (positive)? Or is the information intuited by the reader or audience (negative).”
In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter suggests that another way to view story space is as story versus plot, with story being the negative space that exists beyond the start and end, and plot which concerns itself only with actual occurrences on the screen or page—positive space.
Determining the boundaries between negative and positive space helps the writer find the true beginning and end of her story, as well as what to leave in or omit, right down to the level of a scene. This aspect of the craft is perhaps one of the most difficult to master but one of the most rewarding, once achieved.
Positive story space concerns the actual words on the page, or shots in a movie. Negative space is the material that exists in an unstated but present form in the mind of the reader or viewer in support of the plot itself.