Screenwriting 101: The Gap

One of my favorite terms that I got from reading Robert McKee’s Story is The Gap.

The Gap is simply the distance between what the protagonist thinks is going to happen and what actually happens. The wider The Gap is, the more interesting your story will be.

Example: you’re at the water cooler, and a fellow employee says “Let me tell you about my morning.” He goes on to tell you about how he ate some toast, watched Good Morning America, got dressed, checked his email and then went out to get the bus. This is a protagonist with no Gap at all, and thus his story isn’t very interesting.

(On the other hand, if you are the protagonist in this story, your Gap is a teeny bit wider because what you expect to happen is that your co-worker will tell you a worthwhile story and what actually happens is he’s a crashing bore.)

If your co-worker says that he bit into his toast and discovered there was a dead mouse baked into the bread, his Gap just got appreciably wider. If he says that he turned on the TV and started a fire because he has too many appliances plugged into his outlet, his Gap is wider still. If he says that he sat down to watch Good Morning America and found they were broadcasting his obituary, his Gap is about as wide as it’s probably going to get.

Since Cloverfield happens to be on my mind, and has an exceptional example of The Gap, let’s look at that narrative for a moment:

Rob in Cloverfield is in love with Beth but can’t bring himself to tell her so. He’s moving to Japan soon and doesn’t want to deal with his newfound emotional detour. What Rob expects to happen is that he will move to Japan, as scheduled, never deal with Beth again, and eventually get on with his life. What actually happens is that Rob’s friends throw a surprise going-away party for him, Beth shows up with another guy, Rob finds all his feelings for her coming to the surface, and then a giant monster comes along and destroys Manhattan.

That, speaking as a professional, is some freakin’ Gap.

Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs is an FBI trainee who is asked by her superior, Jack Crawford, to interview Famous Creepy Guy Hannibal Lecter, in the hopes that she will get him to shed some light on a serial-murder case that’s troubling him. What Clarice expects to happen is that Lecter will creep her out, but ultimately help her in her pursuit of her goal, which is to curry favor with her superior. What actually happens is that Lecter creeps her out to a level far beyond what she would have thought possible, and draws her into a web of intrigue so personal and disturbing that it turns out that Clarice, and Clarice alone, is able to capture and kill the serial killer that’s troubling Jack Crawford.

Richard Kimble in The Fugitive comes home one evening to find his wife being murdered by a mysterious one-armed man. That’s a pretty freakin’ wide Gap right there, but that’s not really the Gap of Richard’s narrative. What Richard expects to happen is that he, sober, bearded vascular surgeon, will simply tell the police what happened and the police will then diligently pursue his wife’s killer. What actually happens is that Richard finds himself accused of his wife’s murder, and is thrown into jail, tried and convicted.

Marion Crane in Psycho steals some money from her employer and high-tails it out of town to make a new life for herself. What she expects to happen is that she will probably be arrested, but almost certainly she will calm down, return the money and get her life organized. What actually happens is she gets so murdered by a guy in a dress that the rest of the movie isn’t even about her, which is probably the widest Gap in the history of movies.

The Ticking Clock is one of the most celebrated of all plot devices, but The Gap is sometimes overlooked, which is a shame. Take Alien for instance, a brilliant motion picture which, brilliance notwithstanding, not only takes its sweet time announcing a protagonist (you would be forgiven for thinking it’s Tom Skerrit for the first half of the movie) but, until the goddamn thing bursts out of John Hurt’s chest, The Gap between what the protagonist expects to happen and what actually does doesn’t seem that wide to me. The team is called to a desolate planet to investigate a distress call, and nobody wants to do it, because they all expect to find something horrible. Which, indeed, is what happens. The Gap comes later, when they think they’ve figured out what the nature of the thing they’ve found is, figuring which turns out to be dreadfully, dreadfully inaccurate.

One way to successfully install a Gap in your screenplay is to have a good idea about who your protagonist is, and a good idea of where you want him to end up, and then look at that protagonist and that ending and see if there’s a way to tweak it so that the protagonist is expecting anything other than where he’s going to end up. If Richard Kimble came home to find his wife being murdered by a one-armed man, and immediately thought “I’ll bet my best friend Pharmaceutical Industry Guy is behind this!” he wouldn’t have much of a Gap. And if Clarice Starling was asked by Jack Crawford to go interview Hannibal Lecter and thought “Aha! I’m going to hijack this case from my superior and kick this guy’s ass!” her character wouldn’t have anywhere to go. And if Rob had just gone ahead and told Beth he loved her that day in Coney Island, he probably could have saved everybody a great deal of trouble.

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21 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: The Gap”
  1. craigjclark says:

    May I be the first to make a lame joke about how I don’t shop at The Gap?

  2. chmmr says:

    What actually happens is she gets so murdered by a guy in a dress that the rest of the movie isn’t even about her, which is probably the widest Gap in the history of movies.

    The words so murdered were read, in my head as I read this sentence, by Henchman #21.

  3. stephenls says:

    Thank you; this is probably one of the most helpful essays I’ve ever read in terms of how to construct a narrative. It’s also catalyzed something that’s been floating around in my head for ages and ages regarding fanfiction, which I used to read but don’t anymore, which is this: Fanfiction hardly ever has a Gap. Even the stuff that’s got well-developed characters and believable dialogue and awesome setpieces and, you know, spelling and grammar and punctiation that don’t make me want to stab things. I had gotten to the point where I can identify a former fanfiction writer writing professionally, but I’d never in a way I could vocalize until just now, when I read this journal entry. And now I can!

  4. urbaniak says:

    The cliched way to title this post would have been with the London underground phrase “Mind the Gap.” Where’s your embrace of the obvious?

  5. Anonymous says:

    What I’m noticing here, at least from these examples, is that the Gap is usually something external that happens to the character.

    Can a gap be internal as well? An example, from something I’m working on (and I hope this isn’t too vague): Character A comes across Character B, who is hurt and unconscious. In their world, the logical, maybe even humane response, is for Character A to kill Character B — put him out of his misery. And Character A is about to do just that, but then changes his mind at the last moment. It seems like there’s a Gap — Character A fully intends to kill and is surprised when he find he won’t do it and helps Character B instead — but it’s completely in the head of the character. Well not completely, I don’t think — the audience knows that killing would be an appropriate response, that Character A is capable of it, and I think we see A pick up the rock to smash B’s head (or whatever), so there is a visual component… but still, I’m not sure. Is it a Gap? Is it something else? Is it even good storytelling?

    (I don’t know if it’s relevant, but this moment is pretty early in the story, and could probably be called the inciting incident, as this action seals the fate of everyone involved.)

    (I also should say that I have read “Story”, but I don’t have a copy around just now, so maybe my question is answered there.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Dang it, that was from me, Kent M. Beeson, once again.

    • Todd says:

      Good question. Can a character be surprised by himself?

      I’m going to say, for the moment, yes. Although movies aren’t very good at internal stories, I suppose it’s possible that, in a movie about a man who is mystery to himself, he could find an internal Gap. I’m not sure how you would dramatize such a thing cinematically though. In a psychological thriller, people often do irrational things, but the protagonist is generally the person trying to figure out the behavior, not the irrational person himself. Even movies like The Machinist or Naked Lunch, which about about protagonists falling victim to psychoses, their internal Gaps still manifest as exterior “surprises.”

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s funny — despite your “yes”, you’ve convinced me the answer is “no”. So in my example above (wish I coulda come up with a real movie for an example — telling people about your screenplay’s a little like telling people about that dream you had the other night*), that’s not a gap. I think instead what I’m getting at, with that example, is how to present motivation, and if and when you write a post about that, I’ll bring it up again there (or ideally, you’ll have already answered my question).

        * Unless of course, you get paid for it.

        — Kent M. Beeson

  6. Anonymous says:


    Todd, thanks so much for taking the time to put down your thoughts about the craft here. It’s been tremendously useful information.

    – R.B. Ripley

  7. Anonymous says:

    Does the Gap change?


    Really enjoyed this article. I have a question regarding its application to my own script.

    In my screenplay, What The Protagonist Wants is to feel alive again. He’s a vet who has experienced terrible things that he can’t share with anyone, and though he doesn’t have PTSD, he’s utterly alone, and thus feels like the walking dead. At the beginning of the story, he fully expects that he will spend his life alone and miserable.

    But through the course of the story, he falls in love and gets pulled into a deadly situation where his skills are of paramount importance. By the ending, he has got what he wants, but he never expected that to happen before the closing moments. Thus, my question is whether or not the character needs to be aware of The Gap himself; the protagonist in my script knows what he wants, but is surprised to get it in the end. Am I misreading it, or does that still count?

    Thanks for the article,

    James Frazier

    • Todd says:

      Re: Does the Gap change?

      You may be misreading it. If your protagonist expects to live alone and miserable, but then meets a pretty young thing who is unexpectedly kind to him, that counts as a Gap. And if the protagonist gets what he wants, but he gets it via a path he wasn’t expecting, that counts too.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Does the Gap change?

        I think I see what I was missing at first; the Gap doesn’t have to directly involve What The Protagonist Wants, just what he expects. At least, I think that’s what I was missing.


        James Frazier

  8. It seems to me that there’s a second measure that’s important: How the audience’s “gap” compares to the protagonist’s gap. In a B movie or a romantic comedy especially, the audience’s gap is considerably narrower than the protagonist’s. The audience enjoys being in a privileged position to the protagonist, knowing better than to wander out into the woods alone after six or seven of his best friends have already been killed or enjoying the privleged intimacy of being able to see the couple coming together long before the couple can see it coming.

    Whereas, in drama, the differential between the audience gap and the protagonist gap is narrower, pulling audience identification ever closer to the protagonist so that the edge into catharsis can be better achieved.