Sam Seely

Product and the narrative gap

A few years ago I picked up Robert McKee’s Story, a book about the structure and stylings of plot and narrative. One of its concepts that’s since stuck with me is that of the narrative gap.

Here’s McKee on the gap:

“The moment [the protagonist] takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected. This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result…”

The narrative gap is the result of a protagonist’s action, the difference between subjective expectations and objective result. As the audience, we recognize when a protagonist meets this gap; it creates tension, it makes us anxious, we want to see the protagonist’s worldview resolved and restored.

Gladiator is a good example.

Maximus is a good man. We know him to be a good man. Our collective expectation is that Maximus will win his battle against the barbarians and get to return home. The narrative gap emerges when Maximus’s subjective worldview meets objective reality; Commodus’s usurps the throne, Maximus’s family is killed, and Maximus is thrown into slavery. The rest of the movie is Maximus clawing his way back, struggling to make objective reality conform to his subjective view of what is right in the world.

It is the writer’s job to create this narrative tension. To surprise the audience with what is expected and what actually results.

Compare this to product, where it is the job of the product manager or designer to do the exact opposite, to eliminate all narrative tension a user encounters when using a product.

For every user interaction, the result must be exactly what was expected. If it isn’t, if objective reality doesn’t align with a user’s subjective expectations, if an interaction results in an unexpected outcome, then the user encounters a “narrative gap” in the product, just as they would in a story.

But (unlike story) product has no promise of resolution. The only way a user can resolve narrative tension in a product is to either a) mold their subjective model of the world to the model presented in the product or b) find their subjective model somewhere else. Option A is unlikely. Option B is churn.

I like the narrative gap as a lens for user experience. If the user meets unexpected results, if they are working against “forces of antagonism” to make the product do what it is supposed to do, then there is room to improve.