Writing 102: Mind the Gap

Writing 101 is simple: You must write. You must set aside time every week, preferably every day, to write. It doesn't really matter how much in a session, you must have a regular writing session where you've set yourself the goal: write.

I want to discuss a term in writing called the gap. The gap is a simple concept to understand, but a difficult one to write. The gap is where a story starts.

Most writers understand the basics of story: a character is placed in a situation demanding a response. In a series of acts, the character confronts the situation with an exchange of reactions while the world reacts back, the last of which results in an ending in which the character and/or those around him are left in a state of irrevocable change.

A conflict is not always obvious, and it's certainly not clear to any human being that an initial contact with an event or situation is going to be life-changing, but for a story to be interesting that is exactly what the opening of a story must be: the first event that leads to a life-changing event for the main character. Writers must understand that with this expectation, a character will always react conservatively to the initial exchange. It is the second event that hammers home the level of conflict facing the character, and this second event is the gap.

In The Terminator, when Sarah is first confront with the idea that she's being followed by the Sarah Conner killer at the bar, she reacts conservatively: she calls the police. It isn't until Kyle pummels the Terminator with shotgun blasts and he doesn't go down that the gap opens up: it's not a serial killer but something much more demanding. How she responds shows us the heroine emerge from the waitress.

Mature bodice rippers love the gap: the heroine typically has had a few suitors, and in her encounter with the male protagonist she has a set of expectations. When her emotional state is in turmoil afterward, she tells herself that the feelings will go away. It is in her second encounter with the male protagonist that the gap opens: there really is something different about this one. Now she must address the conflict with skills and reponses new and admirable for us to like her and root for her.

The gap is an important tool: it must come soon (typically, within the first 1000 words of a novel), and it must have impact to lead the reader from the gentle "that's interesting" stage to the "I must read it all" stage.

The next time you're revising a story, consider the gap. Find the one you've written. If you like your work, I'd bet you have one in that story. You just didn't know what to call it, or how to frame it.

Earlier: Welcome to the new, improved site

Later: What's that white ribbon on your stomach?