In the first article, we looked at the germ of a story idea. the spark of a story, and we took that through into the second article, identifying the story
possibilities in that spark. With my story, Alfie, the spark came from my mum’s funeral. I was inspired by seeing so much happiness in such a sad event. How does that work? The second post looked at how to expand on the idea; to identify a character and the potential for a personal journey. So my story will be about a person grieving a death. They will journey from bereft and devastated to some better place; a place of renewal or hope, so this will be an uplifting, positive story.
There are many core story elements in motion at this point, for example, the morality concerned with how a person should treat themselves and others when death visits their lives, but I can only talk about them one at a time. So for this third post, let us discuss the constant that is present in every story, and that we must never take our eye off: Knowledge Gaps.
For a story to be compelling it must 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 life-knowledge into the gaps in knowledge you have created. 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 allows 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, in completing a narrative in their minds, a receiver of a story produces the story for themselves in their own heads. 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 for themselves. You produce 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 liking. Crafting gaps into a narration is the genius of the writer. Filling gaps is the work of the receiver of the story. That’s the difference between a narrative and a story: A narrative is out there in the real world; a story is only ever in mind. A writer produces a narration (a stream of information) and a receiver of a narration produces a story for themselves in their own minds as a result of receiving and interpreting a narration.
(If you are interested in digging deeper into the neuroscience, do please read my nerdy geek banger of a book: A Constructivist Narratology (2018). It’s a page-turner!) A more detailed, but lite version of this information is in The Primary Colours of Story (2018).
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 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 information. A playing card face down in a wild west saloon withholds information 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 can’t go through them all here, but I will highlight the ones that I use in Alfie throughout this development process.
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 the story.
Look at the gap between the literal meaning of the words (a classified ad 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 from 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 causal 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 that last word is. But you can also finish the sentence for yourself, right?! You can picture the speaker, as you see them, and you can fill in what you think should be there. Driving the work of the receiver in this way is the craft of creating a story. It is also the power an author has, and understanding these gaps is the secret to the craft of 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.
Knowledge Gaps and Alfie
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. My story is about a character grieving, so, to demonstrate my point, let’s just make a huge knowledge gap out of that. Let’s not tell the audience that this is what is happening. Let’s have my character do weird things without explanation. She’s grieving, so these will turn out to be rituals and ceremonial acts to cope with grief and to celebrate the death of the loved one. If they grieve in normal ways, it will be too obvious, so lets have her grieve for a different type of loved one; say a person mourning the death of their dog. One of the benefits of this is that the rituals and ceremonies she indulges can be all the more bizarre and can raise the questions in the mind of the audience: what is she doing? Why is she doing it? Basic knowledge gaps which are deep and pervasive. The death will have already happened, so that will also be knowledge the audience does not have. The character knows that they have had a death in their family, but the audience does not. A lovely, simple knowledge gap. So, the audience is lacking knowledge that the character has, and this is evidence of strong story. They do not know, as the story opens, that, firstly, there has been a death, secondly that it was a dog that died, and thirdly, why the character is behaving in these purposeful but apparently bizarre ways.
The trick then, is to look at your idea and find ways to drive in differences in the knowledge held. This is the approach to the dynamics of the entire story, as in my example here, but it is also the key to strong story in every act, sequence, subplot, chapter, scene, beat, and sentence of dialogue. If a line is a lie, there is a gap between what the speaker is saying and what is known by the other characters. This is the process for every event in your story. This is the process of putting intrigue and engagement into your story and story events. This is the craft of writing.
Let’s go back to that line of dialogue: ‘Oh, my God, she is such a -‘
How did you fill this gap? Here’s how I did it:
‘Oh, my God, she is such a beautiful yacht. This is the best birthday EVER!‘
Now that you have all the knowledge, you fill the narrative scenario in a different way, with different characters and different dynamics between them. When you filled the gap the first way, there was a difference between your personal expectation and what happened when I completed it. In both cases, it was you filling the gap that made it into a story.
A story is any form of communication with knowledge gaps in the telling.
It’s as simple and as powerful as that. There will be much, much more on knowledge gaps as we get deeper into Alfie’s story!
Incidentally, the filmmaking side is progressing nicely, with a shoot planned for September 2018, so keep checking back for updates! This will be a film soon, and you will have been a part of the entire journey!