Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Oh, no you didn't. Writing in the negative.

Writing in the negative involves using words that emphasize what isn't there instead of what is.

Virginia didn't know what to do. The man with the gun didn't see her, but she didn't think she could escape without him hearing her footsteps. No one came to her rescue.

I've been warned against using negative writing because the story ends up not being about anything specific. The top paragraph, people argue, doesn't allow for the creation of tangible objects (except the gun). Intead, I could write:

Virginia tried to come up with a plan. The man with the gun had his back to her, but she knew that if she tried to escape he would hear her footsteps. She waited for someone to come and help her, but the only thing coming through the doorway was the sound of the traffic.

Writing in the affirmative forces you to imagine more details that help the reader to better experience a scene. I agree with this most of the time. The revised paragraph, for example, allows me to be clearer about the gunman's position in relation to Virginia. He has his back to her. The last sentence also creates a slightly better sense of scene. We know there is a door leading outside. We know there are cars somewhere close by.

But, what about the first sentence? Is there a difference between them, or do they conjure up the same idea and create the same experience for the reader?

I once had a story where a boy was talking on the phone to a girl. He upset her during their conversation, and for her response I wrote that, "He couldn't hear a sound on the other end of the line." I was persuaded into revising it, which resulted in something like, "All he could hear were the sprinklers from her yard coming through the telephone line." This new sentence required more creativity and allowed the reader to experience more, but at the same time I felt how difficult it was for me to come up with that detail. I had to really strain to imagine what someone could hear on a phone when the person on the line wasn't speaking. It may have entertained, but it didn't feel natural or authentic. Was it better? I'm still undecided.

If you want to avoid negatives, you should remove all of the sentences like:

No one said a word.
They didn't move.
She didn't know what to do.
I couldn't help it.
Carly hadn't arrived yet.
Isidoro didn't win the race.

But, sometimes I think these sentences feel completely natural and maybe they aren't so problematic after all. I end up using nagatives in my writing still, but I stop to think of my alternatives before I make any final decisions. How do you all feel about it?


  1. What a great thing to think about. It is true for the most part, but silence is also valid in moderation. Sometime it speaks louder than noise. We mustn't use it as a crutch because we haven't thought about what sounds are there. It has to be a conscious choice.

    I love the line: the only thing coming through the doorway was the sound of the traffic. Very Nice!

  2. Sometimes, what's not happening is exactly the point.

  3. There's a time and a place for everything. Just be judicious with the use of negatives, passive voice, and other such devices.

    As I tell my children, there are no bad words- just inappropriate times to use them.

    And if all else fails, make it dialogue.

    "You can get away with saying damn near anything when there's quotes around it, because then it's just your character speaking," he said.

    WORD VERIFICATION: Dinkisms. Sayings pertaining to how small, or "dinky," something is.

  4. Lotusgirl, Silence is valid in moderation. I like that!

    Scott, Yes, we have to remember what the point is, don't we?

    Rick, Hey, I never noticed how powerful those little lines could be!

  5. Wow. This is something I "didn't" think about before. I "never" thought of it that way - being so "negative."


    I think that what works, works. You have a point about using negatives, but they serve a purpose at times. There can be too many, I agree. Always good to do a search and see where some can be strengthened!

    I like the sentence without the sprinklers. That sounds like you're trying to be too creative. Just my opinion. :)

  6. I try to avoid using too many negatives in my writing.

    It isn't the easiest, but I can't complain. Wouldn't be right of me. Don't you agree? ;)

    P.S. I shook my hand at Scott for you.

  7. I strenuously object to Davin encouraging Justus' opprobrious actions in my general direction.

    I don't know what to say, but I do not approve. It's not that I am upset, but what I am not is of an approving state of mind. It's not fair. Oh, bitchcakes. Not.

  8. In other words, avoid all sentences using the word didn't. I like the sprinkler one, Davin. It says a lot in such a creative way!

    Can you hear the sprinklers at Davin's house if no one is speaking on the phone??

  9. Agree, writing in the negative works in some cases, you just have to know when do use it. Not saying that I know, or anything

  10. Okay, a serious response, maybe even a thoughtful one. In my current novel, there is the following bit:

    “My lord, it is raining.”

    He said nothing, turning to look out the window. After a moment he turned back to me and we embraced in silence. Without another word he was gone from my room.

    a) Wow, that's clumsy. "Turned" used in two consecutive sentences? Three sentences about not talking? Yeesh, was I drunk when I wrote that?

    b) Bad writing asise, my point is that nothing was said, and that all the action happened in silence. I don't want to talk about the sound of the rain hitting the window, or the streaks of morning light on the protagonist's face, or anything else. I want to say "there was no sound."

    Like most rules, "don't write in the negative" is good advise in the general case, but we have the construction of negative declarations because it has its uses.

  11. Wow. I never thought to look at negatives in that way. Thank you so much for sharing! Totally learned something new today.

  12. Scott, just to play devil's advocate, what do you think of this revision?

    “My lord, it is raining.”

    He turned to look out the window. After a moment he turned back to me and we embraced in silence. Then, he was gone from my room.

    Do you feel like anything has been lost?

  13. Davin,

    I realized that the problem is with Hamlet looking out the window. I don't need him to strike that Olivier-as-Heathcliff overwrought pose. So here's the latest:

    "My lord, it is raining."

    He embraced me without another word and in a moment was gone from the room. Through the window I watched him walk into the courtyard a few minutes later. A squire helped him mount his horse and then, with four dozen Swiss cavalrymen behind him, the prince rode into the downpour through the great iron gate, off to join his father in making war on his own subjects. Hamlet was barely nineteen years old.

    (I've included the rest of the paragraph.)(Obviously.)(Look: parentheses!)

  14. I wasn't criticizing the paragraph, but was curious is removing the negatives affected you for better or for worse. But, I like the revision. Want to revise my book? I'm having a little trouble getting back into it these days. Maybe I could just tuck it under your book and you'd keep editing right on through.

  15. Davin,

    I think that "without a word" was what I really wanted in there, and all the rest was very clumsy stuff surrounding it. Sometimes I get stuck editing each sentence in a string of sentences, and don't see that they fail to add up. For this little paragraph, I just rewrote it without looking at my original prose, because I knew what I *meant* and that was more important that fixing what I'd already written. Sometimes I'll rewrite a whole scene from scratch if the prose isn't working, not looking at the extant version.

    I don't know really how much I needed the negative constructions in the first version. Not much, apparently. Sometimes I don't know what I'm talking about.

    Sure, I'll just slip your ms under mine.

    "My good Bao, it grieves me to hear of your brother's sad fate," I said.

    "Break not your sleeps for him," Bao said, idly toying with the buttons of his doublet. "Verily, he was but a portly ratbastard."

  16. Lady Glamis, I agree the sentence feels too self-conscious to me. Some people like it, some people don't. I keep thinking I should submit the story that line comes from. It's the only thing I've written in second person POV.

    Justus, thank you. We must keep the respresented writers in their place.

    Robyn, If you're quiet, you can hear them. There they go. Okay, I'll stop talking so you can hear them. Really. I'll stop. Right. Now.

    Crimogenic, I bet you know!

    beth, Glad this is new stuff for you! I've heard it so much I groan whenever someone tells me not to use the negative.

  17. Scott, I love it. Bao needs a doublet. He'll blend in so much better with those poor Ra-nong fishermen. And, he'll get fewer mosquito bites. And, you've captured his voice perfectly.

  18. You laugh now, but you won't be laughing when doublets are all the rage along the Andaman Sea. Big ruffed collars, too. You'll see.

    Hey, wait: "keep the respresented writers in their place"?

  19. I think it is a good idea to try to rewrite negative sentences to say what IS happening.

    But once you know, you don't have to use them.

  20. Scott:

    "I strenuously object to Davin encouraging Justus' opprobrious actions in my general direction."

    This generated a long series of Monty Python-esque French taunts rolling in my mind:

    I fart in your general direction you empty headed animal food trough wipers, you and your silly utter king. Your mother was a hamster, and you father smelt of elderberries.

    If this ends, I may continue reading the rest of the thread ;-)


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