Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 39.
You won’t guess what today’s challenge is. It’s not something you’ve tried before. Don’t worry. I won’t keep teasing you like this forever. You wouldn’t stand for that. But don’t be too surprised if you feel like you can’t do it.
Yesterday I said that the subtitle for this part of the course, if there was one, which there isn’t, would be ‘All The Things We Cannot Say’. So much of successful fiction is about gaps. Things characters can’t or don’t say. But also spaces that you, the author, leave, for the reader’s imagination to flow in and fill for themselves. Today we’re going to take on that concept very literally.
Ever noticed how often negations appear in fiction? I’m talking about sentences that exclude something rather than introduce something.
So, for example:
He hadn’t ventured this deep into the caves before.
That’s a negation. It’s telling us something the character hasn’t done. Or:
He couldn’t see a thing.
That’s not telling us what he can see. It’s asking us to imagine the concept of an object, then saying, yep, the protagonist can no see that. It reminds me of a very funny bit the comedian Simon Munnery used to do (and probably still does) where he critiqued the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine. And he talked about how awkward the line ‘Imagine there’s no Heaven’ is, because it’s going, ok first get the concept of Heaven in your mind. Have you got it? Now cross it out.
And he has a point. If you ask someone to imagine the absence of something the first thing they have to do is imagine the existence of the thing. Basically the exact opposite of the experience you’re trying to evoke. Imagine there’s no badgers. Well, you probably just started imagining some badgers. We’ve both failed miserably.
Now neither of the two example sentences sounds outrageous. Probably if a scene began ‘He hadn’t ventured this deep into the caves before. He couldn’t see a thing.’ you’d barely notice that, instead of giving you additive information about this scene, I’ve subtracted. I’ve excluded some interpretation.
But used carelessly, negation can have an effect similar to using too many similes or metaphors. When you use negation, you run the risk of drawing the reader’s attention away from the narrative present, away from the world that is, and contrasting it with a hypothetical world that isn’t. Do that too many times in quick succession, and the reality, the tangibility, the crunchiness of your fictional world starts to dissolve.
Even a sentence as seemingly innocuous as ‘She didn’t say anything’ has an abstract, distracting edge to it, because it asks us to imagine the act of speech, then sort of strike a line through it and exclude it from the scene we’re witnessing. Which only makes us think of it more. It’s like saying ‘don’t imagine Piers Morgan licking custard off a mirror’. You can’t help but do it.
As a side note, this tendency to create relationships between words and concepts is one of the foundational parts of Relational Frame Theory, which is one of the theoretical underpinnings of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. It explains the phenomenon attested to in psychological research literature of paradoxical relaxation, where when anxious people do relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation they get more anxious. Because, very quickly, they come to associate the word ‘relaxation’ with its logical partner, ‘anxiety’. Words, concepts, experiences and behaviours exist in a network of relationships with other words, concepts, experiences and behaviours. Words almost inevitably contain an echo of their opposites. Black makes part of us think of white. Up sparks an echo of down. Death makes us very, very aware that we’re alive.
Now, you could easily recast the two examples I gave as ‘This was the deepest he’d ever ventured into the caves’ and ‘All he saw was fathomless black’, to make them assertions rather than negations – but I’m not sure doing so makes them intrinsically better. I’m not saying that negations are bad. If I ever say anything that sounds remotely close to a rule about writing, ignore it. Writing has norms, not rules. Compositional principles, sure. Tactics that seem to work on most readers, absolutely. But rules? No thank you very much.
Let’s take that line one last time: He hadn’t ventured this deep into the caves before. Now true, it doesn’t give us any absolute information about the world, but in the same way that the dialogue we wrote yesterday contained implications, so does this. I don’t have time to get into HP Grice’s Four Conversational Maxims today you’ll be relieved to hear, but maybe on a future episode because they’re kind of a cool way at looking at dialogue and if you make a character deliberately break one of these four rules he came up with for how we talk to each other you can create some really interesting, funny effects.
‘He hadn’t ventured this deep’ implies, obviously, that he is now doing some venturing, and he’s going relatively deep. It doesn’t say he is, not absolutely, but almost without thinking about it we infer that that’s the case. It would be quite a rug pull to discover that the scene isn’t in the caves at all, but in, I don’t know, IKEA. It would still make logical sense – he hasn’t ventured as far into the caves as he has into the endless Tupperware section of this nightmarishly designed Scandanavian consumer paradise – but the reader would feel like they’d been tricked. Which might be very amusing, but it’s still a deliberate head fake.
It’s not that negations are good or bad, but just that they’re suited to certain types of effect. Negations are usually more abstract, more psychological, more about general mood and flavour, and more suited to implication, than positive assertions, which tend to be more concrete, more direct. It’s the difference between saying ‘The dragon grinned.’ and ‘The dragon did not look displeased to see him.’
So negation isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s worth being conscious of when you do or don’t (heh) use negation in your narrative, so you can make sure each time you use it, you’re making a conscious choice, and you’re controlling your tone.
The best way to develop your ear for that is practice.
For today’s task, you’re going to write a scene entirely using negations. So sentences like:
She didn’t know. She hadn’t heard anything. He wasn’t there. It didn’t take long. ‘I shouldn’t really tell you…’ They couldn’t have stopped him. The knife didn’t make a sound as it slipped into his belly. There wasn’t anything to say.
You get the idea.
Just make sure the main clause of each sentence is a negation. So ‘She didn’t give them any warning before she fired’ is fine – yes, it contains an action, the subclause ‘she fired’, but the main verb, ‘give’, is negated. And if that all sounds dreadfully complicated, don’t worry. Do your best, but I shan’t be tazing you for failing to adhere precisely to the rules of the exercise. The main point is to push you to write in a new way, and to have fun.
As with previous exercises, you needn’t plan this too much – discover the story rather than trying to solve it. Think of all the different ways you can string a scene together using negations. Try to include some dialogue if you can – you might have to get creative with how you handle dialogue tags. Maybe using dialogue beats instead? I’ll leave that up to you.
And look – if you’re absolutely stumped as to how to begin, as a prompt you’re welcome to use this as a first line: ‘It wasn’t locked.’ But you don’t have to.
Right. Ten minutes, writing a scene that only uses negations. I can’t wait.
Three… two… one… Go.
And that’s your lot. Thank you for indulging me. Well done for getting through it.
Of course this is a complicated, unnatural way of writing, which is why I’m delighted to tell you, you don’t have to write like this all the time. Phew.
I hope you enjoyed the challenge. My deepest wish is that exercises like this heighten your awareness of the choices you’re making when you describe something in your stories, and help to refine your stylistic sensibilities, opening up some new possibilities for you.
Right. We’re not doing any more today. I shan’t waffle on any longer. Don’t be a stranger now. I won’t see you tomorrow. Um. Wait, no, I will. Imagine there’s no badgers…