Of Pen and Ink – Story Gap

I mentioned Robert McKee’s story when I did a piece on Beats, Scenes and Sequences. Now I’d like to address another aspect of writing: The Story Gap.

The Story Gap is what McKee calls the gap between a character’s actions and the world’s reactions. This is yet another thing that I try to ensure is happening when I go through to check that my scenes are turning. In essence, this should have a place in a good scene without too much extra work on your part.

I’ll let Robert put it in his own words via the YouTube video.

Take for example the flow of a scene: Beat by beat, the character and the world go back and forth, building tension. Finally, the character asks for X, the world offers Y. Or the character tries to reach his destination on time, the world offers only red lights and traffic jams. This is a story gap. The character asks for X, expecting to get it – the fact that the world offers Y, instead, is unexpected. The character tries to reach his destination on time, so he intentionally selects a route that should let him do just that. Maybe he’s even on time to begin with and not running late at all. In that case, his expectation is certainly that he will arrive safely and soundly. When he doesn’t, that’s the gap cracking open beneath his feet.

What Robert essentially suggests is this: when your character needs to act in a situation, go inside the head of that character, and ask yourself, “If I was this character in these circumstances, what would I do?” Internalizing it means that you should know the circumstances and that character well. You aren’t thinking about what would be cool, or what would the reader expect…just selecting the action they would take. That should also give you a clear idea of their desire, what they want at the moment.

Then, step outside the character, and instead into the force that is acting against them. If it’s another character, so be it. If it’s the physical environment you can do that, too. At this point, think about not only what this force wants, but also think, “What is the absolutely least expected reaction we could take against the character in these circumstances? What would they never see coming?”

Now you have a potential Story Gap. Now you can put everything on the stage, step back and see how it plays. Now you can worry about whether the reader can follow it, whether it’s too cliché, etc. And whatever values you had at stake in your scenes that make things turn (by flipping the value from negative to positive) can probably be tied to the gap you just created. If the character was asking for X, Y may very well be the exact opposite of what they wanted.

~Meredith Purk

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4 thoughts on “Of Pen and Ink – Story Gap

  1. Thanks so much for posting that awesome video clip – story gap – he explained it so well. I agree that when you really know the character and have a realistic sense of how the world works, these gaps become quite apparent.

  2. Yes, I think I’m learning more about my characters through trying to employ this technique. Whenever I have trouble posing the “What would I do if…?” question, I can tell that I need to discover more about that character.

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