Often we think of surprising audiences with large twists and turns, with thrilling midpoints or shocking losses, but bringing surprise into smaller story pieces, like interactions and beats, can sometimes be equally satisfying in their own way.
They also hook and reel in readers, which is always a plus.
Recently, I’ve been re-reading Story by Robert McKee, and in it, he talks about the importance of “the gap.” The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen. Sounds simple and obvious, right?
But many writers don’t consider how to fully utilize this on the small scale. Every character wants something pretty much all of the time. They may be hungry, so they go to a drive-through, expecting to order. She may be going to a friend’s house to tell them she just got engaged, expecting to share that excitement. He might be wanting to ace a test for college.
Everyone wants something, and most people will be taking some form of action to get it. As your character takes that action, think about what they expect, then consider how the result could be different. Maybe your character is trying to order at the drive-through, but no one is responding (a result different than expected), so then what do they do? They take an escalating action. Maybe they raise their voice at the microphone, once, then twice. Suddenly, someone comes on . . . who sounds like they are dying. Now the character needs to think about and take another action, which has another expectation, which could offer another gap.
But not all gaps need to be that drastic. Maybe your character shows up at her friend’s house and rings the doorbell, expecting to be let in, like usual. But when her friend opens the door, she blocks the way, and it looks like she’s been crying–an unexpected result. Or maybe your character shows up to the testing center, but as he sits down, realizes it’s actually an open book test . . . and he didn’t bring his.
If you pay attention to successful films, this sort of thing happens all the time.
Take a look at this scene from Disney’s Frozen, where Anna, Kristoff, and Sven meet Olaf. Watch for the gap between a character’s expectation and the result.
It happens over and over again, almost every line: the North Mountain is higher up than Anna expects, the snowy setting is more beautiful than she expects, they hear a voice they don’t expect, and find a live snowman, which they don’t expect. Look at this exchange:[After some talking, Anna gives Olaf a carrot nose . . . which she accidentally pushes in too far so it’s out the back of his head] <–unexpected
Anna: Oh, I’m sorry! Are you okay?
Olaf: Are you kidding me? I . . . am wonderful! I’ve always wanted a nose! It’s so cute. It’s like a little baby unicorn. <–unexpected[Anna smashes the back of the carrot in, so his nose is way bigger] <–unexpected, for Olaf
Olaf: Oh. I love it even more! <–unexpected
Olaf: Alright, so let’s start this thing over. Hi, everyone. I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs! <–unexpected
Anna: [in recognition] Olaf? That’s right! Olaf. <–unexpected, for Olaf
Olaf: And you are . . . ?
Anna: I’m Anna.
Olaf: And who’s the funky looking donkey over there? <–unexpected
Anna: That’s Sven.
Olaf: Uh-huh, and who’s the reindeer? <–unexpected
Anna: . . . Sven. <–unexpected, for Olaf
Olaf: Oh, okay, make things easier for me. <–unexpected (in subtext)[Sven tries to eat Olaf’s carrot nose] <–unexpected, for Olaf
Olaf: Ah, look at him trying to kiss my nose! I like you too! <–unexpected
. . . and the scene goes on with this.
You’ll notice that the gap isn’t just about the viewpoint character. Every character wants something, even Sven, who wants a carrot (and he doesn’t get the result he wants when Olaf reacts). There can also be a gap with the audience and what they expect. Often this is the same as the viewpoint character, but those two things can deviate.
Sure, sometimes the characters do get what they want or expect, and sometimes that’s necessary for progression, but you’ll notice scenes and interactions are much more interesting, even entertaining, if reality doesn’t meet expectation most of the time. If you can turn and twist even beats, the audience will be surprised and thrilled on the small scale over and over again.
To do this, it’s important to remember a few things:
– The unexpected result should usually be more powerful in some way than the expected.
– If it’s less powerful than what is expected, it should quickly be followed up by something new and surprising.
– Often the unexpected leads to a form of escalation. Notice how even Olaf wanting introductions creates a sort of rising action, up until he confuses both of the guys as “Sven” and the real Sven tries to bite his nose. In other situations, a sense of risk might escalate, as the character takes more and more actions to try to get what she wants.
– If it doesn’t lead to escalation, it should probably lead to the character having to take a different action.
So when working on a scene, consider what each of your characters want, what the audience wants, and how you can deliver something different to surprise them, then look at how their reactions could open up another gap.
September C. FawkesResident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on
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