In London, every time a train door opens, an automated female voice tells you to “Mind the gap,” so that you don’t fall into that nether space between the train and the platform. When I was in England last year I smiled every time I heard it. I was about to start a new novel, and Robert McKee’s book Story was on my mind. McKee is another of my screenwriting gurus (if you read this blog, you know I have a few of them—I think screenwriters are often better at talking about plot than novelists) and “the gap” is a concept he talks about a lot.
I should say right off, though, that his definition of “the gap” is narrower than mine. For me, “the gap” is just the difference between what the reader expects is going to happen and what happens; and the polite but firm voice on the London underground was a reminder to follow Aristotle’s advice and make my characters’ actions surprising yet inevitable.
McKee gets a little more specific, though. In Story, he talks about the importance of opening up gaps between what the character expects to happen as a result of his actions and what really happens. It’s a subtle difference, but a very important one for McKee.
Many writers will tell you that plot happens when a character wants something, he takes action to get it, and the world puts an obstacle in his way. McKee stresses the importance that the obstacle, the force that appears to keep the main character away from his goal, be different from the one the character was expecting before he took that first action. The gap, then, is “the truth he discovers in action.”
*SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE*
Jane can foresee many obstacles to her love for Mr. Rochester: the class difference, her plainness, that horrid Miss Ingram. Imagine what a dull book Jane Eyre would be if it only concerned itself with overcoming these known obstacles. No, when Jane takes action and accepts Rochester’s hand in marriage, the world pushes back harder and with an obstacle she never anticipated: Rochester is already married to a mad woman he is keeping in his attic.
Wo! I think Aristotle would have to agree: That is surprising! And yet, when you think about it, inevitable too. Only this answer explains Rochester’s mysterious behavior…not to mention the eerie laughter emanating from his attic. The truth about Rochester’s wife is the truth Jane discovers in action, something she never would have known had she done nothing.
*END SPOILER ALERT*
A wonderful thing about reading McKee is that there is an interesting philosophy of life hidden in all that story-structure talk: He believes that the world is known by acting upon it, not by observing it, and not by letting it act upon us. Whether or not that’s true in life, I think it works very well for story.
So…mind the gap!
Here’s a youtube video of the curmudgeon himself, talking about “the gap.”
And even better is this interview of McKee by George Stroumboulopoulos: