Friday, August 1, 2014

The Art of Poetic Space

Before I was an active writer, I was a reader with a passion for fantasy art. I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series when I was in college and embarked on my own version of fangirl geekdom.

Fast forward a decade or two and you’ll still find me at the comic conventions. There is something wonderful about a comic book—it’s not just reading with pictures. It’s a story with art—and the two are inextricably connected.
Charles Vess
Comics intrigue me because of their brevity—so much story and action packed into tiny frames. One has to really get into the story to fully appreciate the nuances of each angle, each line, each visual. Eventually, I came across the work of Charles Vess, who illustrated my favorite issue of Sandman.

I met him at the Baltimore Comic Con one August, where he spoke about the concept of poetic space.

Images and Words

I’m not surprised to hear such a term coming from this artist. You know the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words?” His pictures actually are: entire volumes have the power to spring from a single illustrated page.

Vess said poetic space leaves room for the reader to fill in the details and participate in the experience. When asked how much poetic space an artist should use, he replied: “As much as possible!”

As a writer, I was intrigued by his notions of poetic space and, with it in mind, I examined my style of writing. Did it exist in my work? Should it exist in my work? After all, writing is not drawing. A painting may invoke emotion and meditation but a book—well, a reader would only know what we told them.

However, there’s a point where enough is enough, already. Endless lines of description begin to sound more like a shopping list. Yeah, you get a picture, but is it fun reading? Meh. Not really.

Poetic Space Equals Wiggle Room

The balancing point is a thin line. Trouble is, everyone places that line differently.

I’m a contest junkie. I can honestly say my first pages have been read, shred, scoured, devoured, chewed up, spit out, praised, razed and a slew of other critiquing verbs by at least a hundred different judges. They all had individual ideas of how much—or how little—description my opening pages should have.

We’ve heard it time and time again—action should predominate those early pages. Hook the reader. Draw them in. Backstory and narrative summary can come later. Or…can it?

My story has a first person point of view so it’s not like the narrator is going to spend a ton of time talking about her own appearance in the first pages. Yet, I had more than a handful of people wanting for more—I can’t count all the times I got “I don’t even know what she looks like.”

However, I got far more compliments on the intrigue and the hook. If the contest only gave the first few pages, I can let the crits slid.

Why? Because of poetic space.

If someone is only going to read the first five pages, their minds can fill in those missing details, if they need to. The rest of the story has plenty of space to flush out those details later.

If, on the other hand, those first five pages don’t have anything else to grab onto, all the poetic space in the world won’t redeem them. There’s the balance: poetic space is a tool to be used along with every other device writers use to create our stories.

Engaging the Reader

Vess’s remarks backed up a small conversation I had with my editor, Rose Mambert of Pink Narcissus Press. We were discussing some cover sketches and she said she didn’t have a clear idea of what the protagonist looked like but knew the hero looked nothing like the sketches. The part about my main character concerned me. Did I need to go back and revise?

“No,” Rose said. “A physical description of Sophie is not so important. Readers will fill in all those missing details, anyway. Though if there's a picture of her on the cover, that will probably stick in the readers' mind, so we do want it to match up with how you envision her.”

Whew. Poetic space to the rescue.

In a splendid interview, Vess spoke more on the topic of poetic space in his discussion of artist Frantisek Kupka. He said there’s a trend in fantasy art to show every detail, and light the subject in such a way that it eliminates all the mysterious shadows. No room left for the reader’s interpretation.

Poetic Space Enhances Our Stories

As writers, we, too, need to incorporate those mysterious shadows into our characters. If you lay everything out on the line in high definition perfection, then there is no subtle nuance to develop later. No place for a telling quirk. No room for a surprising flaw.

That would be an affront to our writers’ sensibilities. It’s our need to peer into the shadows and come up with our own interpretations that makes us writers in the first place. We look into the vague and the subtle and we pull a story out of it.

Out of the poetic space.

It’s a service, as well, according to Vess. When we have to supply our own imagination to fill in that poetic space, we train ourselves to continue the story. We become more proficient in telling the stories running through our brains.

We develop our creative senses. We become better writers.

So. Poetic space. Who knows? It just might be our redemption.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press) or stop by . Ash is also a contributing editor at the QueryTracker blog.  .


Peter Hogenkamp said...

Ash, I have been utilizing Poetic Space without realizing it was a technique. As a reader, I avoid pages crammed with description and writers who devote much of their prose to describing what people and settings look like. I look forward to reading your book.

Sue Coletta said...

Great post, Ash. Poetic space-- who knew it was a term?

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Thanks, Peter... I thought it was great advice from an artist who creates entire stories without writing a single word.

You'd be amazed what fiction writers can learn at a Comic Con!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

you are talking to a recovering X-Men junkie! I so get it!

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Recovering? Really? You're turning your back on the rest of us, sir!