Tag Archives: narrative

Understanding Positive and Negative Story Space

Positive and Negative Space:

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.

Exploring the Story Network I

Structural Links

Structural Links

Understanding story structure involves different stages of learning. The first stage is to identify, name, and understand the function of each narrative component. We learn that a turning point, for example, spins the story in a different direction, and we learn that in a typical story there are two such turning points. But looking at individual elements in this way provides us with a static picture. It tells us what the elements do, and where they occur, individually, but not how they interact with each other to produce a cohesive and dynamic narrative. This is very much a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole: we cannot unlock the full meaning of a text unless we trace the links between the narrative elements, understand that they form a network, and explore how that network functions. Individual structural units, seen in isolation, therefore, surrender less information than they do when studied as a network. The following series of posts tries to remedy this situation by exploring these important interrelationships, starting with the inciting incident and the first tuning point. For the purposes of this post, the typical starting point – the ordinary world – is treated as given.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident, we are reminded, is an event that gets the story rolling. It usually occurs after the ordinary world of the Hero has been established and takes the form of a disturbance to the status quo of this world. The inciting incident is often mistaken as the start of the story, precisely because it jump-starts the tale by relating its first significant event. In media res beginnings, the inciting incident replaces the introduction to the ordinary world, injecting a sense of excitement and urgency at the start of the story at the expense of context.

The First Turning Point

The first turning point is the true start of the story because it presents new information which forces the Hero to respond to a challenge, opportunity, or threat, hatch a plan, and embark on a series of actions to implement this plan which affect the entire story. It differs from the inciting incident in that it introduces information that spins the story in a different direction than that suggested by the inciting incident.

Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: First Link in the Network

The relationship of the inciting incident to the first turning point, is, therefore, one of deviation resulting from a surprising and unexpected change – a rotation, or alteration to the path initiated by the inciting incident. One can only understand the inciting incident, therefore, by relating it to the ordinary world before it, and the first turning point ahead of it, just as one can only understand the first turning point in relation to the inciting incident and the structural nodes ahead of it – but more of that in next week’s post.


Understanding structure relies not only on an understanding of discreet structural units, but of the links that exist between them. Each structural node exists in a dynamic relationship to the other nodes in the narrative network and can, therefore, only be understood in relation to the overall network.


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