Draw a circle. The space inside the circle represents the positive space in the drawing. The negative space would be the shape made by the outside of the circle. It’s most noticeable in cut paper art or silhouettes or even those Nagel prints that were so popular in the 1980s. Positive and Negative Space exists within other forms of art as well: ceramics and sculpture, for example. Since writing is also an artform, the theory of Positive and Negative Space also applies to literature and, specifically in this case, world-building or setting.
Often, readers and new writers assume that world-building is what the author describes in detail—whether that’s the history of the fictional continent, the climate, the system of government, cultures, arts, typical foods, monetary system, and social norms. However, what isn’t said tells a story too. It’s in the clothes the characters wear and the materials they are made from. Wool, for example, means there are sheep or creatures like sheep which in turn means shepherds. The sheep are sheared and that wool is cleaned, carded, spun (either by hand or with a spinning wheel), and either knitted or woven. Next, there’s the color of the cloths. Dyes are made from plants, bugs, and sometimes even animal parts. All of these things must be gathered, processed, and applied. Often, as is the case with indigo, it requires a great deal of water. Lastly, are the clothes in question handmade? Or were they manufactured? In Science Fiction—particularly in Space Opera, there aren’t likely to be fields of cotton or herds of sheep available—particularly if the story is set on a generation star ship or living on the moon. That’s when other technologies, like 3D printers must step in. So much can be implied about a world in a simple castoff sentence about an item of clothing or food.
It might be easier to imagine world-building as an iceberg floating in the sea of plot. The reader only sees a small percentage of it. The rest is deep beneath the water and affects everything in the water—visibly and invisibly. That said, communicating with the empty spaces takes a deft hand because the border between too little and just right is quite thin. In addition, Americans in particular are often socially conditioned to say more and listen less. That’s why world building in the blank spaces is an advanced technique most often employed by authors with experience and skill.
A great deal of worldbuilding can happen with what is left unsaid.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury does all the things writers are told not to do when it comes to setting. Much of the details are left for the reader to infer for themselves—effectively conveying a powerful sense of isolation and unease. The country in which the story is set isn’t named and neither is the date. Although, one can easily extrapolate that the characters live in some form of futuristic America. The details of the government aren’t filled in, and this heightens the sense that it’s a sinister force. It’s clear that this version of America is at war but why and with whom are also never explained. There seems to be no past—other than a time when books were legal—and no future. There is only the ever present now, now, now. That’s the point. Everything is surface because the characters are forced to live only in the present. Distractions are a way of life. Asking questions is dangerous. And so we learn that this America is ruled by an autocratic government without ever explicitly being told it is. Books aren’t the only things being destroyed. So is the ability to think.
Octavia Butler, Dawn
Octavia Butler also employs negative space in her novel Dawn. The novel opens with the main character trapped in a blank room and no memory of what happened or how she came to be there. The room in question is inside an alien spaceship. Its interior is made up of blank white walls and floors that can be shaped into whatever is needed. However, the power to do so is locked to alien DNA. At some point, the main character, Lilith, must agree to having that DNA implanted in order to operate the doors of her cell. This is, the reader discovers, a major part of the aliens’ culture and existence. In order to survive, they assimilate different parts of various beings as they travel across the universe. They discovered human beings just before they annihilated themselves. The aliens kidnapped/rescued the remaining population with the intent to repopulate the earth. Lilith has been chosen to lead humans on the path to their new future. The blank setting is in place for a large part of the novel until the humans enter an area that has been created to replicate the Amazon rain forest. Other details given to the reader have to do with alien reproduction, intimate relationships, and biology. The entire novel is stark, and its blankness imposes a creepy claustrophobic air.
Iain M. Banks, Culture Series
Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels are another great example. Throughout much of the series the reader is directly told very little about The Culture. Most of what is learned is demonstrated through the actions of its agents—themselves largely unreliable narrators. Pretty quickly we’re made aware that The Culture is vast, is run by artificial intelligences with far advanced technology, and considers itself a helpful influence among the lesser technologically inclined species and planets around them. The Culture interferes, but only in ways sanctioned by the main governmental group. At first, the reader might be inclined to believe The Culture is exactly as powerful and beneficent as is claimed, but over time the cumulative buildup of negative consequences begins to erode this view. One is left wondering if the differences in technological and cultural systems are just too enormous for any interactions or attempts at uplift to result in anything but a mixed bag. Ultimately, very little is said about The Culture, but the silence screams more loudly than if pages had been devoted to exposition.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness stands out as one of Science Fiction’s greatest works. Genly Ai, a human from Terra, is sent by the Ekumen (a confederation of planets) as an ambassador to the planet Gethen. His objective is to convince the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen. He starts his journey in the Kingdom of Karhide. Unfortunately, it turns out that Genly Ai knows very little about the beings with whom he’s been sent to negotiate. While the people of Gethen are humanoids, they have key differences in their biology. For a start, they are asexual and possess characteristics of all genders. However, during kemmer (mating season) their bodies transform and they develop sex organs. As a result, their society has certain social strictures surrounding gender. Genly Ai’s maleness creates barriers to communication. Another issue is that while Gethen has similarities to Earth, the world is in the midst of a glaciation period. The Kingdom of Karhide is facing a famine due to the extended winter.
The plot revolves around the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven the Prime Minister of Karhide. During the course of the book, we’re given information about the planet of Gethen and the customs of multiple cultures native to it. However, readers are left to infer almost all information about Ekumen via the reactions of Genly Ai to the cultures found on Gethen. Not only does this make sense character development-wise—Genly Ai would be more focused on the uniqueness of Gethen’s cultures than he would be on information he already knows and understands—but this juxtaposition also emphasizes the rift between the cultures of Gethen and Ekumen. It makes Ekumen feels more alien than it would if it were expressly described. In addition, Genly Ai’s situation feels more perilous because the reader isn’t clear what else he doesn’t know about the cultures he’s been sent to interact with, building tension in a slow-paced plot.