In art, say in the painting of a portrait, positive space is the area occupied by the subject. The background, or surrounding material, represents negative space.
Stories and scenes can also be thought of possessing these two characteristics. The story itself, 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, exist prior to the story commencing and that they continue to exist after the book or movie has ended, in the mind of the reader or viewer, at least. This aspect may be considered as constituting negative space.
In The Godfather II, Michael sits alone, isolated from family and friends, staring into emptiness, yet we feel that his life will continue past this point. In my forthcoming 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 backstory here is germane to our understanding of his situation and to the plot in general—negative space. How far this negative space extends in either direction varies greatly. This aspect differentiates it from positive space, which concerns itself with the “finite” past and the “here and now”.
In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter suggests that another way to view this is as story versus plot, with story being the negative space which 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 acquired.
Positive space concerns the actual words on the page, or shots in a movie. Negative space is the material that exists in an unstated but necessary form in the mind of the reader or viewer in support of the plot itself.