In Storytelling, Mind the Gap

Make sure you understand the difference between Expectations and Results — they reveal the true inner nature of the character


As storytellers, we understand that every character’s journey is based on a series of objectives: the pursuit of desired outcomes. We also understand that for every objective, there are obstacles, often series of them, each designed to keep our character from achieving his objective.

Mixed into the constant push/pull of objectives and obstacles is another element: expectations. If the objective is what our character pursues and obstacles are those things standing in the way of achieving the objective, then expectations are the rewards our character anticipates receiving once he has reached his objective.

Here’s an example: Walter decides he wants to get a certain job (his objective). He is convinced that once he gets this job, he will feel better about himself, his colleagues will admire him, and his life, for all intents and purposes, will be complete (his expectation).

Every character in every story has expectations. Most often they are not written or stated in the script, but they are there nonetheless, deep inside the character. After all, if there are no expectations, why pursue the objective? And so, typically, as Walter begins his pursuit of securing this life-changing job he will immediately run into obstacles.

At this point, Walter will do the same thing every character does: He will make an adjustment, a movement designed to circumvent the current obstacle. Once the circumvention is complete, Walter will go merrily along his way toward achieving his original objective when … Bam! You guessed it – another obstacle.

Sometimes it is the same obstacle, sometimes it is a new obstacle and often it is the old obstacle disguised to look new. So, Walter, our beloved job-seeking protagonist, makes another adjustment. And so it goes: obstacle, adjustment, obstacle, adjustment, on and on and on.

There are, of course, only a couple of ways that Walter’s pursuit can end: Either he will achieve his objective (i.e. get the job), or not. That’s it. But let’s not forget about Walter’s expectation: This job is the key to making his life better. When considering expectations, there are four basic ways Walter’s pursuit can end:

1. Walter achieves his objective and is rewarded with all his expectations – he gets the job, his colleagues admire him, his self-esteem soars and he feels great about himself. There is no gap between what he wanted and what he got. Note: This ending is actually the least interesting because it feels idealistic, unrealistic, inauthentic and lacking in drama.

2. Walter does not achieve his objective – he does not get the job. Nor does he receive any of his expectations, which creates an enormous gap between what he was hoping for and what he actually got.

3. Walter achieves his objective of securing the job, but finds that it does not provide him with the wonderful bliss of ‘perfect life’. No one admires him, he finds the job is actually beneath him and so his self-esteem plummets. Another gap between expectation and result.

4. Walter does not get the job, but does receive his expectations. Ironically, his colleagues admire him for turning down a job beneath him and he feels more complete in his life simply because he has discovered some lost part of himself as a result of pursuing the job. This is known as an ironic gap and can provide a powerful twist in a story.

It is this experience of "The Gap" that makes every story feel familiar, personal, intimate. Good stories have Gaps in every moment, every scene, at every turning point and especially at the climax of the story. And with each Gap we, the audience, will feel that the story relates to us somehow because our daily lives are filled with Gaps – those moments when the results of our actions fail to meet with the expected outcome. That’s what The Gap is: the difference between Expectations and Results.

So, be sure to mind the Gap. Next time you read a script or see a film ask yourself, “What were the Expectations? What were the Results? How did the existence of a Gap add depth and texture and complexity to the character’s journey? How did the Gap enhance the story?”

Your answers to these questions will reveal the true inner life of the character, will point to your own personal connection with each and every character and will make the experience of the story that much richer.