Monday 16 November 2015

Notes from the Critique Group - The Gap

by Maureen Lynas

This was a very interesting discussion at the SCBWI BI York critique group involving:
The space that's left for the reader when we SHOW rather than TELL

Leaving THE GAP gives the reader a role to play in the story as they infer and interpret the text. There's a balance to be had between showing and telling depending on the genre, age group, and experience of the reader.

If a book is set in a familiar world to the readership then THE GAP can be quite large. The reader fills it with their knowledge, life experiences, cultural history, emotional history etc. The author can then play with the reader's inferences and expectations. If the book is an unfamiliar world then - the author has to try harder to familiarise the reader with the world and may need to leave a smaller GAP. Without resorting to information dumps.

What are these worlds?
This is what I've come up with so far. Please do add more in the comments.
The book samples below are taken from a western readers POV but I'd love to see a similar post with book choices from another cultural POV e.g. which children's books reflect the normal world for a reader in India and how big would THE GAP be for the western reader. 

The normal world young readers live in:
Often school based. The readers are familiar with school, teachers, family, friendships, bullies, emotions.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.
Most books by Jacqueline Wilson.
Mariella Mystery by Kate Pankhurst.
Chocolate Box Girls by Cathy Cassidy.
The World of Norm by Jonathan Meres.

The world young readers live in plus…
Often still school based but includes some sort of magical or fantasy element. The readers are familiar with school, family, friendships, bullies, emotions, this type of magic, good v evil, destiny, prophecies etc
Harry Potter by J K Rowling - school plus magic.
Matilda by Roald Dahl - school plus magic.
Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja by Marcus Emerson - school plus ninja.
Spies in Disguise by Kate Scott - school plus spies.

Readers are bringing an awful lot to THE GAP in the above worlds.  They're really dealing with a familiar unfamiliar world. But what about the next lot.
There are lots of examples of the above that I'm very familiar with. I'm not so familiar with the types below. So please do add extra titles in the comments.

A contemporary culturally unfamiliar world.
Shine by Candy Gourlay.

An historically unfamiliar world.
Which may also be based in a culturally unfamiliar world.
Buffalo Soldiers by Tanya Landman.

An alternative historical world of unfamiliarity 
Twisting history but history is unfamiliar to children anyway. So would they know? 
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.

A non-existent unfamiliar world of oddness.
A society and premise different to the familiar - physically, culturally, geographically, and socially. 
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.

An alternative future of weird technology
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

How can you begin to establish it's a different world? I would begin with the question - How do other authors do it?
Analyse People! Analyse!
I've taken a look at Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines to get you started.

In the first chapter Philip Reeve paints a picture. He establishes a world for the story, and creates a smaller world for the protagonist, Tom.

These are the notes I've made on my first pass through.

The book opens with: An Action Scene
The city of London is chasing a small mining town.

Establishing the bigger world:
Philip Reeves places us in an unfamiliar 'bigger world' as the action unfolds. Sometimes through dialogue, sometimes through announcements, observations, setting, interactions etc.

Tom Natsworthy, Chudleigh Pomeroy, Herbert Melliphant, Clytie Potts

St Paul's cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth, land-bridge, ziggurat-town.

The Anti Traction League, guildsmen, apprentices, historians.

To the people of London it seemed like a sign from the gods.

Municipal Darwinism.

…lawns grubbed up to make way for cabbage-plots and algae plants

Unique language and technical terms which help to establish this is not here and now.
Gut-duty, traction city, argon lamps, goggle screen, exhaust-stacks, sky-clipper.

Time and cultural references that set the book in an alternative future
"It's playing merry hell with my 35th Century ceramics."
…once been the island of Britain.
…past the big plastic statues of Pluto and Mickey, animal headed gods of lost America.

Establishing the protagonist's smaller world:

Position in society
"He's just a third, a skivvy."

Clytie Potts - "Dancing and fireworks! Do you want to come?"

Enemies and conflict
Of a similar age: Herbert Melliphant - "We don't want Natsworthy's sort there."
In a position of power: Chudleigh Pomeroy - "Natsworty! What in Quirke's name do you think you're playing at?"

Personal History
"Natsworthy's mum and dad lived down on Four, see, and when the Big Tilt happened they both got squashed flat as a couple of raspberry pancakes: splat!"

To be a hero.

Brilliantly done! Philip Reeves is a master. All that in one chapter with no info dumps. It seems to me that the protagonist's smaller world can have a bigger GAP because it's dealing with emotions and situations common to all. But the bigger world needs a smaller GAP if it's unfamiliar.

Right, now go and analyse a book  in your genre. Get the highlighter pens out. Use a colour for each heading. Add your own headings. Then apply this to your own writing. Work out what the reader NEEDS TO KNOW and get rid of anything the reader DOESN'T NEED TO KNOW. Weave the info in and out of the action. And above all

It'll be fun!
Maureen Lynas


  1. What a thought-provoking post! I think you're right that in order to get going quickly (as Philip Reeve undoubtedly does in Mortal Engines) you need to place a familiar and relatable human story in the midst of the unfamiliar world. It's certainly possible to take the approach of several chapters of prologue/introduction that build the world, but you end up with a very different, more glacial feel to the storytelling. The world of Mortal Engines is grubby and imperfect, full of sudden dangers - Reeve's approach to the narrative is perfect because it pitches you straight in to that.

    1. Exactly. He's a weaver of the bigger and smaller world.

  2. Great post, Maureen. Glad you put the final advice in caps. Oy Yew is somewhere between alternative historical and non-existent so you would expect a smallish gap, yet I was able to widen it considerably in the second draft. I think the more we write the more instinctive the placing and diffusion of 'tell' becomes.

    1. Thanks, Ana. I think you're right. We become more aware as authors how much we need to show and how much to allow the reader to infer.

  3. very interesting post - thank you - I work as an oral storyteller (and aspiring writer) - and we rely very much on that "gap" - you can tell the same story a thousand times, yet it will be different each time, depending on the audience profile, the setting, my mood, what's in my head that day, what's in the audience's head that day. And the beauty of fairy tales and myths is that they leave huge gaps for the listener / reader to fill in despite a fantasy setting. I try to apply a little of that to my writing too, and it allows you to draw out the emotional inner world.

    1. Hi, Sophie, I hadn't thought about it from a storyteller's POV. So, when you're in front of the your audience you can tell from the blank looks that the gap's too big? That must be very useful when you come to write.

  4. Excellent post - especially as the Mortal Engines books are the ones I offer when asked for "my favourite book" when on school visits.

    1. Thanks, Penny. They are excellent aren't they? I wish I'd come up with the concept.

  5. Interesting way to look at this. Would Angie Sage's MAGYK series fall into the familiar world plus magic category? She writes about aspects of "everyday" life that are outside of most children's experiences but there's a very strong family-based core that holds it all together. Starting to think that historical fiction for younger readers is more like writing fantasy. . .

    1. I suppose to children it is all fantasy. Anything out of their experience is fantasy because they don't really know fact from fiction at a younger age. Mind you, a lot of historical fiction is distorted fact.

  6. Wonderful! We're going to add this to your other great crit group ideas and have a brain bash with them!

    1. That sounds fun! Just don't give yourselves a migraine!


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