The Gap, An Introduction

What is the Gap? The Gap is a term I learned from the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.1 I refer to this book often as McKee does a great job teaching story craft, beginning with the basic elements of story and building upon them.  While primarily targeted toward screenwriting, I believe the elements presented in Story carry over into other story mediums like the novel, play, etc.

The Gap is where story happens.  It’s where the audience GASPS when something happens that they didn’t see coming—that they didn’t expect.

In real life, things often happen as we expect them to.  We take an action, anticipating a result, and most times the result is as we had imagined.  Not so in story.

The protagonist has a desire (e.g. to save someone, to fall in love, to catch the criminal), and she takes an action that she believes will get her what she wants. Typically, according to McKee, the character will choose to take the easiest route to achieve her desire—as in real life we often choose the easiest way.2 But forces of antagonism arise, blocking her from getting what she wants. These forces of antagonism may arise from one or more sources of conflict: from the outside world, personal relationships, or the self.

In other words, what the protagonist expected to happen, the reaction she anticipated from her world, does not happen. Instead, something else happens—conflict arises, pushing her further from her desired goal.

This place at the heart of “expectation and result” is called the Gap.3  The Gap between what was expected to happen and what actually happens. And what the protagonist expects to happen so do we, the audience.

So, what does our character do now? She takes a second action, which calls for more effort than the first action, again expecting a particular reaction from her world. But this time, there is risk involved—the protagonist now has something to lose.

Let’s look at an example. I remember distinctly watching the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. [SPOILER AHEAD…] In one scene, Captain America is chasing the villain—a.k.a the Winter Soldier. We follow this action scene, wondering if Captain America will catch him. But then the unexpected happens: the Winter Soldier is unmasked and we (and Captain America) discover that the man behind the mask is none other than Captain America’s old friend, Bucky Barnes. What?! But Bucky died in the first Captain America film—or so we thought. A huge Gap is torn open between who we expected the Winter Soldier to be and who he actually is—or perhaps we didn’t know who he was, but were surprised by the revelation this it was Bucky. Nonetheless, conflict arises in Captain America’s world on the level of inner and personal conflict (this was his friend after all… what will he do now?).


The Gap is where we GASP or say what?! to the unexpected.  

1 Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 147.

2 McKee, Story, 147.

3 McKee, Story, 147.


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