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?