The Embedded Message in Architecture: Or, What Can Architecture Teach Us About Writing?

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On the group-hosted writing blog Murderati, Toni McGee Causey has written a MUST READ article “Positive and Negative Spaces” that absolutely knocked my socks off (and, judging by the comments at the end of the blog, much of the blogging world’s too). She refers to a book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  recommended by literary agent Janet Reid, and says that 

“the entire book… has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.” 

In her critique, Toni posits that we dwell in positive spaces (think about your house where you dwell and do all of your cooking, living, spend most of your time) and and move through negative spaces (a street intersection that facilitates the quick itinerant movement of people).

And from there, she rocks out the article, comparing and contrasting life in negative and positive space. And wow, it’s an incredibly interesting ride. Here’s one (ok, three) snippets that I’ll leave you with:

When I thought about [positive and negative space] in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.

Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.

I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.

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