In the first article, we looked at the germ of a story idea and found ways to explore its potential. In the second article, we added character to the idea to see if it would fly and we looked for ways it might create meaning in the mind of the receiver, a process known as storification. We are now armed with a rough idea of the character journey and something of the
storification that will show us some truth about life and how it should be led.
There are many core story elements in motion at this point, but I can only talk about them one at a time. So for this third post, let us discuss the defining substance of story: Knowledge Gaps.
For a story to be compelling it will contain knowledge gaps. Indeed, in my opinion, for a story to exist it will contain knowledge gaps. Stories are made from gaps in knowledge – it’s as basic and as simple as that. I define a story as, ‘any form of communication that includes knowledge gaps in the telling’. These gaps trigger instinctive responses through which our audience projects their own intelligence into the gaps in order to make sense of the developing narrative. The audience does this because incomplete narratives are a sign of risk or opportunity in the real world. We fill knowledge gaps instinctively, unconsciously and urgently. Our ability to complete narratives in our mind is effectively the driving force that defines the intelligence that has allowed us to rule the planet. Really. it’s as important as that.
Don’t worry about this – I know it is neuroscience, but we will move on to what it means for storytellers in just a moment!
The point is, when a receiver completes a narrative in mind using their own intelligence to fill the knowledge gaps you crafted into place, they produce the story for themselves in mind. If you get the knowledge gaps right, the audience does so much work in providing content for the story, they basically become writers and producers on the project. You deliver a narration (with holes in it). They use that to produce a story in mind by filling in the holes with knowledge of their own. This is exactly what we want. If a receiver of the story is projecting into the gaps, they become engaged, and if they are producing content, they will make the story ideal for their own mindset and liking.
Crafting gaps into a narration is the art of the writer. Filling those gaps is the work of the receiver of the story. That’s the difference between a narrative and a story: A narrative is made from tangible media out there in the real world (information). A story is only ever in mind and is made of mentalised human sense (knowledge). A writer begins with a story in their mind. The writer then produces a narration (a stream of information) that will communicate that story using media and information in the real world. This information stream stimulates the senses of a receiving individual who interprets it and produces a story for themselves in their own minds as a result. Because there are gaps in the knowledge that gets built in mind, the receiver has to add knowledge from their own history and experience to complete the story. The knowledge that goes into the gaps is called subtext.
(If you are interested in digging deeper into the neuroscience, do please read my nerdy geek banger: A Constructivist Narratology (2019). It’s a page-turner!) A more detailed, but lite version of this information is coming soon in The Primary Colours of Story (2020).
What is a knowledge gap?
From a writer’s perspective, you will be relieved to hear, things are much simpler. A knowledge gap is a difference in the knowledge held between two participants in a narration. Usually, the participants are characters, and the gap is a difference in what each of them knows, but a participant can be anybody or anything – the audience, an object, the author, a character – any component of a story that can hold or withhold knowledge. A liar creates a gap in knowledge. A safe withholds knowledge. A playing card face down in a wild west saloon withholds knowledge that may start a gunfight. A wrapped present – is there any more basic and wonderful example of how we feel about a difference in the knowledge held?!
Every knowledge gap is relative to the audience viewpoint. A gap is either in privilege (the audience knows more than another participant) or is in revelation (the audience knows less than another participant). Within these categories there are then dozens of specific ways of introducing gaps. I will not go through them all here, but I will highlight the ones that I use in Bella throughout this development process.
Let’s look at a couple of quick examples. Here is the world’s shortest novel (allegedly by Earnest Hemingway).
FOR SALE. BABY’S SHOES. NEVER WORN.
Think about what your mind does with this before you read on. What ‘story’ do you get in mind? Take a minute to absorb what’s going on.
Look at the gap between the literal meaning of the words (a classified advertisement selling a pair of shoes) and the narrative you built for yourself in your mind with characters and events. The author gave you a narration. You built your own story for yourself in your own mind by pushing knowledge into the gaps. That is the difference between what the author does in crafting a gap, and what we in the audience do in filling that gap.
Here’s a simpler example. Imagine if a character says: “Oh, my God! She is such a – !”
Now, there is a clear knowledge gap through dialogue in this narration. We know the meanings of all these words, but the sentence has a gap. We can’t get the knowledge of this sentence – the human cultural logic that gives it meaning – until it is complete, and our innate need for narrative logic has us projecting forwards. The author has crafted this gap by missing out the last word, and you want to know what is going on. You have a visceral need to complete the narration. So you instinctively finished the sentence for yourself, right?! You could barely help it. Driving the work of the receiver in this way is the craft of creating a story. It is also the power an author has. Understanding these gaps is the secret to storytelling. This is the source of the magic of story. The author leaves gaps, and the receiver of the story is intrigued and engaged by those gaps, and automatically begins trying to fill them. The author provides the gaps. The receiver provides the subtext. (The knowledge that goes into the gaps.)
Knowledge Gaps and Bella
So, what we are looking for in the early development of a story – indeed, at every stage of story development – are ways to drive in knowledge gaps. Gaps exist on three levels – the framing of the story; the characters and their behaviours and interactions; and the storification. The most critical factor in creating story power is the storification, so that is the best place to start. The framing supports the characters; the character actions deliver the storification, so we start from the storification and we work backwards to ensure the character actions deliver it and the audience understands what the characters are doing and why.
My storification – the meaning I would like to generate in the mind of my audience through the work they do and the subtext they intuit from the character decisions and the consequences of those decisions – is a life lesson that says: “If you experience a death of someone close, it is important to mourn and grieve appropriately.”
This is a knowledge gap through storification. The audience does not have this knowledge at the beginning, and they do by the end. That is the purpose of my story and it will work – it will resonate with my audience and give them a mentally pleasing experience – IF I can deliver that storification by showing that this is what happens: A character under this type of pressure, making these types of decisions, gets these outcomes.
Viewers who already feel they know that grieving is important in looking after oneself through the pressure of loss of a loved one will find the story resonates. This is a knowledge gap through cultural resonance and is equally powerful – I will discuss this particular phenomenon in more detail later.
The ultimate moment in my story, then, is when my character – through her own actions and decisions – makes that transition into a good place again. She is in a dark place – bereft and lonely – and she has a choice. She can either sink further into depression and self-pity… or she can decide enough is enough and make an effort to make life work again. I will take her to the brink of making the former choice; but then something will twist her to the positive. That something will be her family. We need to support people through grief. Her family will support her. She will look at them and know she cannot wallow in misery forever. For the storification to work, the solution must come from her proactivity. She takes action; her family rally round; she puts energy into life and it all starts to work for her. She grieved, she suffered, got to the brink of despair… then she made the decision to turn it around. She moved on and life is good again. We in the audience understand that her decisions made her life better. So there are my character actions delivering the storification.
The framing is a death in the family. The framing means the audience are orientated to the context and direction of the story once they realise that there is a death and the main character is in mourning. Normally, a story offers its framing up front and centre, for example through an inciting incident and key question dynamic, but just to show the key question is not essential, I am going to hide the framing. The audience will have to derive it for themselves by filling the gaps from the character behaviours. They will not know there has been a death until late in the story.
In summary, then, a story is made of knowledge gaps. The most important knowledge gap is the storification gap or gaps. In this article, we have focused only on that one major storification gap because this is the one that delivers story magic and drives the way the characters must behave and the way the framing must be to deliver that all-important storification.
In the fourth article we will look at further story design now we understand our storification.
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