The Gap in Stories

Stories and the Gap

Stories and the gap

IN his influential book, Story, Robert McKee explains a mechanism that is central to understanding the protagonist’s action in stories. He calls this mechanism the gap.

The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the external world.

From the protagonist’s point of view the paths to the goal seem initially doable and efficient. But as he initiates action the reaction of the world creates a resistance which is proportional to the effort expended.

Extending the Gap in Stories

The more the effort the more resistance he encounters. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.

This constant expansion of the gap changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.

Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.

The gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.

Summary

The gap in stories is the space that separates action and reaction, intention and result, emanating from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal.

How to Write Great Dialogue

Great DialogueSTORY consultant Linda Seger reminds us that great dialogue is an indispensable part of any enduring story.

Great dialogue has rhythm, context and veracity. It conveys character through subtext and promotes plot through subtlety, ingenuity and compression.

Making Dialogue Memorable

Sometimes a line of dialogue rises to the status of theme and serves to sum up the premise of the story. At its best, it becomes a meme, an item in our menu of commonly used expressions.

In my classes on storytelling, I urge my students to come up with several supercharged lines in their story that not only capture some important aspect of a character, but that also sum up or, at least, highlight important features of the tale.

Such snippets of dialogue increase their power through repetition, not only within the story itself, (the line is repeated by the same or other characters), but also extradigetically, through the viewers and readers who quote it in their everyday lives.

Who can forget these immortal lines?

1. “Go ahead, make my day.”
2. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
3. “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
4. “I’ll be back.”
5. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
6. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
7. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Great dialogue echoes, sings, resonates, surprises and excites. Like great music, it keeps replaying itself over and over in our minds.

How many of the lines above can you place? Check below for the answers.

Summary

Great dialogue performs many functions in a story. At its best, it becomes a meme that spreads throughout society, immortalising its source.

1. Dirty Harry
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Forrest Gump
4. Terminator
5. Apocalypse Now
6. Who Killed Roger Rabbit
7. The Godfather

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Dazzling With Language in Stories

Dazzling language in storiesThere are many things that go into crafting great stories.

Some aspects are hidden from initial view. They are glimpsed only as the story progresses. They exist in the tension between character, theme, setting. They relate to pace, tone, mood, insight.

Such tensions play off against one other eventually kindling a fire that dazzles. Others, such as arresting physical and psychological descriptions through simile and metaphor, are immediately apparent.

No two stories are the same. The narrative relationships within each are too rich and varied for that.

A gifted writer knows when to dazzle us with her exotic yet precise word choice and when to use a subdued vocabulary in order to let something else shine through. A gifted writer is like a gifted conductor, moulding, pacing, coloring every note to greater purpose, now drawing our attention to one voice, now to another.

Dazzling Stories

Today I want to point to what is perhaps the easiest skill to spot – the virtuoso use of language that grants us crucial insights about life (and death).

Examples in stories are as numerous as they are varied, so my choice is a personal one. I’m referring to the many arresting lines from Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer for literature in 2010. The book has not only had a lasting effect on me, but has inspired me to try my hand at a more literary style, resulting in my recently released novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There is something magical about Harding’s use of language that transcends space and time and makes it truly universal. He starts his book with the lines:

“FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster.”

A little later, Harding gives us this surreal description of Forge’s world tearing open as he prepares for death:

“The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”

This is exceptional, packed writing. How can one not want to read more?

Although I do not presume to claim a place amongst such illustrious company, passages such as the ones quoted above inspired me to come up with my own insights about growing older and our need to reconcile our life with our past mistakes. Here’s my protagonist, The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s, Benjamin Vlahos, pleading for a second chance to get life right:

“Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be a subatomic particle existing for the briefest of moments; all the joy and pain of birth and death compressed between the two staccato ticks of that relentless hand.

At other times I imagine a scaled-down version of myself, living on the surface of the watch, fighting against the perpetual ticking of that fearsome engine. I imagine gripping the watch’s hands in my bleeding fists, my arms extended, my body and head thrust forward, my legs bent and wide apart, until I stop the hands from ticking and force them back, rotating them anti-clockwise, back to that moment on the Sydney pier when I stopped to buy my last pack of cigarettes, while Miranda stood on the pavement smiling brightly back at me.”

Ultimately, Benjamin, despite his being a theoretical physicist, opts for art, not science, as a way of understanding life’s vicissitudes:

“Isn’t everything worth knowing squeezed inside the kernel of a story? All that’s ever been written, sang and spoken, pressed into a single pearl? The story is our raft when old age casts us out to sea; the logs are the memories, the ropes are the love and kindness we have shared. Can my equations ever be that?”

Summary

Use powerful but appropriate metaphors In your stories to immediately capture your reader’s attention.

The Who, What, How, and Why of Characters

Complex CharactersAS WRITERS we set out to fashion memorable characters – driven characters who ache, desire and dream. We seek to create characters who are passionate about something and will do anything to achieve it. Characters who are assembled from multiple layers.

But how do we begin to access these layers? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests we start by asking the following questions: Who is the character? What does the character want? Why does the character want it? How does the character get it?

Questioning Your Characters

Who: What is the personality of the character? Is she shy, reclusive? Happy-go-lucky or introverted? Reliable and honest?

What: What does she want and how far will she go to get it? This is the external aspect of character – one tied to the external story goal.

How: How does she get what she wants? Is she a ruthless go-getter who stops at nothing – persuading, threatening, manipulating, or does she achieve her goals through kindness, by example, through wisdom and intelligence?

Why: Why is a character driven? What is the psychology behind his need? In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist is obsessed with undoing an event in the past that claimed the life of his wife for which he blames himself. His psychological scar is so deep that all his actions are channeled through it. The search for transcendence – a major theme in the story, feeds off this obsession.

Characters are also aided or impeded by their values – justice, love, compassion, and the belief that reconciliation is the only way to meet death without regret. A sympathetic character’s values will always be positive.

But even an antagonist, generally loaded with anti-social behaviour views herself as having values – but that view is subjective. The typical protagonist, by contrast, espouses a more acceptable value system. Interestingly, we get the most bang for our character’s buck when we create a tension between the obsession of a character and his value system. The resulting inner conflict makes for absorbing stories.

Summary

Ask the who, what, how, and why of characters to help you craft deep and convincing people for your screenplays or novels.

How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

Writing padIT WAS while teaching classes on Story that I confirmed a common weakness in novice writing – writing that is on-the-nose.

This means that the movement of a scene occurs on the surface, at the level of plot, and not sub-textually where the reader is most involved.

Think of this as writing external action that lacks inner conflict. To avoid this pitfall, and go a step further, present inner conflict as something that the reader is aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, and interest in the scene because they will be privy to something that a character may only become aware of later, if at all.

Stronger Writing

My advice to new writers is to have them create scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation – where a character says one thing but means, or intends, quite another. This creates a subtext of conflict in the scene, substantially deepening our enjoyment of it.

In Moulin Rouge Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, his life will be in danger from the Duke who wants her for himself. So in order to protect him she lies to Christian, telling him that she does not love him, that she will marry the Duke instead. The audience is aware that her lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, doubling our emotion.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist, dreams of one day solving his equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. But we realise that being past his prime, Benjamin is unlikely to ever achieve this, and our compassion for him increases.

In both examples, it is what lies between the lines that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation of characters makes for engaging stories.

How to Write Unlikable Characters

Unlikable CharactersUNLIKABLE characters? You’ve read it right. This post is about creating characters we dislike. But hold on. Aren’t we taught that a character has to be likable for our stories to work?

Well, yes. But not all characters have to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the hero. But surely not the villain. Nor his cronies. After all, we need to pit likable characters against unlikable ones if we are to create tension in our stories.

So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? The techniques vary, but here is one approach. Consider these traits, several of which have been drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide. Some are more potent than others, depending on how unlikable you intend to make your character(s).

Unlikable Character Traits and Behaviours

A character might exhibit one or more of these:

Humiliate others
Ignore a plea for help
Be deliberately unkind
Break a promise without a valid reason
Cause physical or mental pain in others – be a bully
Behave selfishly
Smell bad
Exhibit chauvinistic, sexist, or racist behaviour
Poke fun at someone who can’t poke back
Be cruel to animals
Have bad habits – pick his nose in public, spit constantly, etc.
Pick on someone vulnerable (after all, who roots for Goliath?)
Blame the innocent to save his own hide
Lie and cheat

You get the idea. Apart from obvious physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikable people violate our sense of fair play at a fundamental level. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated in return.

Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate any number of new unlikable character traits.

Summary

Negative traits and behaviours make for unlikable characters who serve to balance your cast.

Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Surprise and Explanation

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.

What Makes a Great Writer Great?

Are you a great writer?In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It is a question all writers have asked at some time or another.

The answers are varied, depending on whether we mean ‘great’ in the colloquial sense of popular, skilled in generic page turners, or whether we mean something deeper and more enduring.

The Great Writer

Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – who reveals some hidden or difficult-to-discern truth about ourselves, no matter what our particular circumstances.

As Dr. Seger notes, a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate master of words.

As a philosopher the great writer poses questions such as, what is the meaning of a specific event? What is the purpose of a specific story? Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?

As a psychologist she asks: What motivates my characters? What moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?

As a theologian, she asks where is the good and the evil my story. What is the nature of sin? Indeed, mixing these categories, the writer may even ask, is there such a thing as evil, good, or sin, at all?

Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton, for example, renders a theological theme with a value system rooted in a community sharing and helping each other during the Great Depression. Its psychological theme reveals a portrait of a woman overcoming her racism because her determination, and love of her children, motivates her to do anything to save her family. It espouses an optimism in life rooted in the notion that goodness and morality will prevail despite life’s challenges.

This multi-layering of motivational/belief systems makes this story, and others like it, truly memorable.

Summary

A great writer reveals our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite our human failings and circumstances.

Logic, Heart & Good Manners

Logic, heart & Good MannersPREPPING for one of the honours classes I teach in research methodology in film arts I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.

One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.

The Logic of Heart and Good Manners

Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, mocking, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.

The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.

The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity and black holes are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.

So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic, we should sense the presence of a human mind and heart seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the power of tolerance and kindness.

Summary

Use logic, heart and good manners to persuade others of the merits of your narrative.

Structure of Stories and Intuition

Structure of intuitionSTRUCTURE is helpful in showing us how to write stories that flow well.

Developed from Aristotle’s core advice that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, the study of structure has expanded then crystallised into a set of techniques that add detail to specific parts of a typical story, such as the inciting incident, turning points, and the like.

Certainly, tweaking a story at the editing stage through knowledge of such structural nodes helps the writer to smooth out the drafts that inevitably follow.

But how does a knowledge of structure help us write a better story while we are actually writing it? Surely, few of us write while thinking about such abstractions? Don’t we mostly follow the fire of the story, wherever it may lead us, at the level of the story and not of structure?

Structure and Intuition

Sidestepping debates of whether you are a plotter or a pantser, and avoiding an outright cognitive discussion of the process, I think the answer is that we do, at the point of contact, have to shift our synopsis to the background and write from the gut. We have to follow the fire.

But the fire is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of structure. And, of course, by our experience of life. So, while it may appear that the words flow spontaneously from our brains, they have been cultured, at a deeper level, by our knowledge of the craft and life.

We all have different ways of manifesting this deeper knowledge while we write. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘midpoint approaching’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to flit to exemplars in order to intuit how great works have navigated similar problems.

My own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence, which alerts me to the possibility that I may have missed a structural node, or that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my mind, then, I often find myself jutting out an elbow, or pushing out a hip as I try to feel, in a visceral sense, necessary changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance – a free flowing stream that assumes shape through bends, turns, through its changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth – that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the creative flame.

Summary

Our awareness of story structure during the first draft should nestle in the background, influencing the story but not inhibiting the creative fire.