Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Inserting the 'Knowledge Gap' into your writing

The last two weeks, I've been reading David Baboulene's book "The Story Book" and I've learned quite a lot that I want to share with you. The book is primarily concerned about script writing for movies, but the same principles apply to any type of story you are trying to tell. I recommend you check it out if you have a Kindle (paperback is listed at like $40!?!?! while the Kindle version is only $1.99) and then go watch the movie Back to the Future since this is the key example that keeps coming back again and again.

But anyways, the key concept of the book that I feel is well worth your time to actually look at and analyze would be the concept of a "knowledge gap" and how it helps create a subtextual plot.

First, we need to lay down the knowledge gaps and what they are. Quite simply, it is a lack of information that either some subset of the characters or the reader is privileged to.

A knowledge gap for the reader might be the lack of knowledge that one of the characters is really a vampire. The character who is a vampire knows this fact and acts accordingly, but the reader does not. This allows the reader's imagination to go into overdrive trying to figure out why this particular character hates the sunlight. All of a sudden, boom, they've engaged their own imagination. And once that is up and running, it's easier for them to apply that to other aspects of the story. (Plus is also gives them a puzzle to figure out without them knowing it. And we all love to solve puzzles, so it keeps us interested)

Once it's revealed to the reader that this character is a vampire, the author might take our vamp into some little village somewhere. Here, the reader knows he is a vampire, but the other characters do not. This again gives the reader some things to play with and imagine all on their own, like how the characters are going to react, or even how they would react in a similar situation.

Now both of those concepts are pretty basic (although you don't really hear them discussed much, regardless of the jargon used to describe it) What you really want to know by reading this post, is how to use that simple concept to create a plot of pure subtext.

I won't be able to teach this to you in a single blog post, but what might get you on the right track is to look at your stories and see what kind of underlying message you want to get across. It is usually this underlying message that really brings out the power in a story, since it is something that the reader 'discovers' on their own without being told bluntly what it is. This makes that underlying message stick a lot longer with the reader because they came up with it 'on their own.'

A simple example I can give you would be if you have a husband and wife in your story, and you want to get across the point that marriage is hard but worth it. You don't have to make the characters fight, make up, and talk about how happy they are. You could write a scene where they fight, say doing the dishes, then at the end have the husband pause for a moment, smile, and blow a handful of dish bubbles at the other right at the point where their argument is at its most intense.

The knowledge gap here would be that the reader doesn't know that this is actually a happy married couple. So their mind is thinking "wow, when will they get divorced. They really hate each other. I wonder if he cheater on her. Does she no longer love him?" But in reality it's just innocent bickering. The other knowledge gap would be between the husband and wife. The husband knows(and so should the reader at the obvious 'paused and smiled' cues) that he's realized their argument is stupid and it's not worth fighting about (which is why he playfully blows the bubbles at her). But she doesn't know this, making the reader feel like they are in on the playfulness.

The plot of my little example is pretty simple on the surface. Husband and wife fight. Husband ends fight by blowing bubbles at wife. The subtextual plot is, Husband and wife have difficulties, but in the end they realize how much they enjoy being around each other. The subtextual plot is the one you feel closer to, and it also has a lot more power than just the superficial one.

What do you think of this method of putting in subtext? Do you already do this or have some other method?


Helen July 21, 2011 at 2:57 AM  

This was an interestesting read Michael, thanks for sharing, now going away to think about it.

Helen -

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