First, a disclaimer: none of the following concepts are based on my original thoughts. What I’ve outlined below is borrowed from Robert McKee’s book STORY. (More about McKee’s book and seminars later)
I think “the gap” is a key concept for any writer, and particularly useful for those authors who are writing thrillers or stories of suspense, or any story where the tension needs to be ratcheted up (which IMHO is all stories). Therefore, I feel compelled to share this information even at the risk of getting a cease and desist order from Mr. McKee’s legal team.
Let’s begin by considering our own lives. In life we have a set of preconceived notions that have been born of experience. We’ve learned that if we do A, in all likelihood B will happen, and if B happens, we can then move on to C. Of course, real life isn’t always this linear, but this is our hope as we plan our actions.
Now let’s consider our fictional characters. For a story to work, our protagonist must have an object of desire, and it is this object, or goal, or desired state of mind, that drives the story forward from beginning to end. And, for the purpose of story, the object of desire must be out of reach.
When our protagonist seeks that object of desire that is beyond his or her reach, he or she unconsciously or consciously chooses a particular action that they believe will take them one step closer to achieving their goal. Now, human nature being what it is, our characters (as we do in real life) will choose the most minimal, conservative action that he believes will achieve his goal.
But, in a well-written story, the character is not rewarded with a useful reaction from the story world. Instead, the effect of the character’s action is to provoke forces of antagonism that react differently and more powerfully than the character expected. This is writing from the gap. There is a gap between what the character expected and what the character got, and what the character ended up getting will make it even harder for him or her to find their object of desire.
Because of this gap between expectation and result, the protagonist will choose a new action designed to overcome the forces of antagonism, and the story world will respond even more powerfully, forcing the character to ramp up their efforts even higher, which will unleash even greater powers of antagonism, and so on and so forth for the entirety of the story until the protagonist finally overcomes all forces of antagonism and secures his or her object of desire.
It’s easy to see how writing from the gap is essential for building tension and suspense, but this technique is not limited to characters dodging bullets or outrunning knife-wielding thugs. Conflict can arise from a character’s innermost self (mind, body, emotions), from personal conflicts (relationships more intimate than those of a social context, like family and loved ones), and extra-personal conflict (conflicts with social or government institutions, individuals not on an intimate level, man-made and natural environments).
Any of these sources of conflict, individually or in combination, can create a gap between the expected response to an action and the reaction the character experiences, and it is in this gap where story is born.
For more about Robert McKee and what he has to offer those who write for the page, stage or screen, go here. Besides his book, he offers seminars, an e-zine, and a writer’s practicum, all of which I’ve found to be extremely useful.
If you have any comments about the concept I’ve discussed above, or about McKee and his teachings, please leave them below.