Dec 05 2018
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How to write what isn’t there

I recently had a Writer’s Eye student who was drafting a chapter in which one of the main characters in her excellent ongoing story dies. The character’s wife experiences feelings of numbness, entering a state of survival we often describe as auto-pilot: she was simply going through the motions and not actually connecting with anyone or anything.

Trauma and loss often result in feelings like this. But how do you write about this particular emotional state and still use sensory details that are the foundation of good writing? That’s what my student was struggling with a bit, in her first draft. I reminded her that what she needed to do was write what wasn’t there.

I wrote to my student: “How to imbue feeling into a passage where your character is experiencing mostly numbness? You have to write via negativa, or from the negative. What isn’t there? What’s missing? You might say, ‘Patty couldn’t even sip at the coffee Walter fetched from the hospital cafeteria for the three of them,’ or ‘Paul’s nurse had to gently nudge Patty’s shoulder and ask her again whether she would be spending the night in his room.’”

I urged my student to try this technique and see if she didn’t manage to get some more detail and emotion into that hospital scene, even as she more accurately portrayed Patty’s numbness and autopilot mode.

Writing via negativa isn’t only for death scenes and trauma narratives. Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever absorbed is encapsulated in this quote by author Richard Price:

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.

How to write what isn’t there, how to write by way of the negative, how to work off the resonance? Here are three tips:

Identify in your own mind what you don’t want to say outright. The final draft and/or your readers don’t need to know in so many words, but you do. If you’re writing about the anniversary of a loved one’s death but you don’t want to say so just yet, you might write about baking the holiday ham without that person’s recipe, how challenging that is, which spices you forgot, how dry the ham ends up being, then lead into the empty chair across the dining room table…

Focus on mood instead of plot. What is the weather like? What is your character wearing, listening to, or eating? In a small scene, and without doing anything pivotal to advance the plot, show your character’s state of mind with as much focus on sensory details as you would if you were writing a scene with much more drama and action.

Pick one object and hyper-describe it. This tip speaks to Price’s point about writing “about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road” instead of saying, “The war was horrible.” Those socks, if you describe them well enough, become an emblem or symbol of the war, a way to show us those horrors instead of simply telling us. In your own narrative, what object can you emblematize?

Have you or will you write around the main tension using these tips? What has challenged you, and what has worked? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Over-write first for a better final draft

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