Subject Material

Mind the Gap (Short Story Writing)

Published: 28.03.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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This is a short-story written by a non-professional, and works as an example to demonstrate the different elements and techniques of the writing process. First read "Write your own Short-Story", then read "Mind the Gap" in its entirety, after which you click on (-) for information and comments.

Mind the Gap

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The idea is the generation gap, and how a prejudiced elderly man sees the younger generation. The twist or irony is that one of the annoying youngsters actually tries to save his life.

The title brings associations to the London underground, which also is the setting. Whenever the train stops at a station, a voice will call out a warning to "mind the gap" between the train and the platform. But "gap" will here also indicate the generation gap, which is the theme of the story.

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Jolting its way southbound on the Piccadilly line, the train was squirming along like a mechanical serpent through the underground darkness of North London. Stations turned up and disappeared into the black again like planets passed by a spaceship on its way to eternity.
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This is called the exposition, and will present the basic setting. Note the language and the simile, which gives a poetic touch. There is also a foreshadowing in "on its way to eternity" since the protagonist will have a heart attack later in the story.

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London UndergroundLondon Underground
Forfatter: Jan-Louis Nagel
Surprisingly few passengers on this late afternoon service. He was alone in his carriage, and it suited him fine. God, he was tired. He closed his eyes, and in spite of the tilting and noise he nearly dozed off. His mind wandered and ran a review of the events of the day. Endless meetings, telephones, tough decisions, and loads of work piling up on his desk. The main office was giving them a hard time. The figures had been disturbingly bad lately, they kept reminding him, so he had to swing the axe. Letting go of good and loyal employees was like cutting his own flesh. But there was no other way.
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The angle is a limited 3rd person view, since the protagonist is described from the outside as a "he", but the reader can also follow what goes on in his mind. The information comes as a flashback and is relevant for the plot, since it describes his troubled mind. Note also the incomplete sentence in the first line.

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And then there was all this other business  ̶  his old mum clinging to her flat in Hammersmith, refusing to move to a home, even though she was going on ninety-one. She needed daily attention, but the community carers only had the capacity for three brief visits a week, so the rest was up to him, her only son. Since his dad passed away some years ago, things had become quite demanding. He was on his way there now to do some shopping for her and see that she was all right, after which he would return to his semi-detached in Chiswick, to Jennifer and his private life, such as it was. Their slowly withering relationship was another headache. He could see it, but felt unable to do anything about it, he was simply too tired. And it seemed that old Jen – caring as she was  ̶  had also gone into some sort of effortless limbo, doing one day at a time; no past, no future. As a result of what seemed like a wordless agreement between them, they were childless. It simply had never been an issue. And they never had missed it – at least he had not. He had never seen himself as father material.
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More relevant background information about the protagonist. This information gives credibility to the character and what happens to him. He has a lot on his mind, and is likely to have a heart attack when he is faced with this situation he can't handle. It adds up to the theme that he and his wife are childless and he doesn't see himself as "father material". Note the expression "his private life, such at it was", which indicates that his private life and marriage are in a poor condition.

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The train slowed down and the lights flickered, he opened his eyes  ̶  King’s Cross. Not many people on the platform, a few commuters heading for some other connection, and 4 or 5 youngsters who were obviously waiting for his train. He prayed silently – please let them pick another carriage and not this one. That’s just one thing he wasn’t up to now – noisy and self-indulgent youngsters invading his intimacy. He hated that. In fact, he loathed the generation of I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-now, these self-centred brats who acted like the world belonged to them. God, they were simply so nauseating.

He sighed when the doors opened and he saw that his prayer was going to be unanswered.
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This is the turning point of the story, where the action takes a more disturbing direction. He calls them "nauseating", which is a reaction that comes back more strongly later in the story.

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The youngsters entered. And what an entrance – one of them stumbled in the gap between the platform and the train and pelted head on into the carriage. It nearly killed the others. They laughed till they cried. The kid who had fallen put on a sheepish grin like he was giving some great performance. Perhaps they were drunk, he could not tell, but that would have made no difference; they were loud intruders and he felt the whole situation closing in on him like a net making it hard to breathe. He kept watching them.
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It has an obvious symbolic significance to let one of the youngsters stumble in the gap. Note also the protagonist's reaction, "closing in on him" and "hard to breathe", warnings of what is going to happen to him. His hostility and uneasiness are expressed in "He kept watching them."

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Mind the GapMind The Gap
Forfatter: Jan-Louis Nagel
They didn’t take a seat, though the whole carriage was empty. They just fooled around in the aisle, picking at each other, laughing and screaming at the top of their voices. One of them wore a black tee shirt saying, “Can but won’t” in bold letters across his chest. Yes, he thought – that’s it. They’re just there for the big dessert – the X-generation, skimming the cream of what his generation had built up, not giving a single thought of thankfulness or appreciation. They can  ̶  but they won't, that's exactly it. He felt a sudden nausea  build up.
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The tee shirt in a way justifies the protagonist's opinion about young people in general, and works as an emphasis of the theme. The irony is that even though it says, "Can but won't", the kid wearing it later turns out to be the one who both can and will. Here the nausea comes back, which is a symptom of his upcoming heart attack.

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Should he be worried? They didn’t seem to have noticed him at all, absorbed in their own lurid contentment. But he was alert – such a crowd was known to have caused harm to people. And these kids would no doubt be up to anything once they took notice of him there on his seat. He was feeling a little uneasy and had located the emergency brake, just in case. Pulling it could be what might save his life, he thought. But the kids still had enough with themselves.
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He now feels intimidated by the youngsters, and senses a growing fear of being terrorized by them. This increases the suspense of the plot. Here is another foreshadowing: Once he felt the fear, he located the emergency brake that "might save his life", which is exactly what it does later in the story, though not in the way he thought.

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Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus – nobody off, nobody on. He knew the route, having used the same service a thousand times. He knew exactly how many stops there were until his destination at Hammersmith; it would still take him at least another fifteen minutes. He was feeling more and more uncomfortable.
Then one of the youngsters seemed to have noticed him. He pointed and turned to one of his friends, saying something unintelligible in his mate’s ear, and they screamed with laughter. He thought – oh, these young monsters, this cruel, indifferent generation of parasites, ̶  if only he could tell them. Grow up, for God’s sake! When will reality kick in for these ignorant louts? Didn’t they have homes? Didn’t they have parents to teach them?
But they soon lost interest. He was nothing. They were totally engrossed in their own company and kept on fooling around in the aisle.
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Now the plot thickens as the youngsters notice him, and the theme becomes more exposed. You may also note the language here, different negative labels used about the youngsters - brats, louts, monsters, parasites. The research work may seem extensive, but it is just a map of the London underground.

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Next stop: Green Park. He could get off here and get a taxi, or he could get out and get into another carriage, but he didn’t  ̶  that would be overreacting, he told himself. These kids are harmless, they are noisy and repulsive, but they probably wouldn’t hurt a fly. Still, he glanced at the emergency brake again; sort of making sure it was still there.

Now one of them was standing on a seat making obscene gestures while the others were laughing their heads off. He sighed and had to look away. He turned his head to the window only to see the reflection of his own face in the dark mirror. This must come to a stop, he thought. The nausea kept coming back, stronger this time.
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Now the climax is coming up, "This must come to a stop", and it most certainly does a few seconds later. The black mirror works as a symbol foreshadowing what happens next, so does the recurring nausea.

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Then suddenly a flaming pain exploded in his chest, a burning ache that seemed to tear his upper torso apart. He couldn’t breathe, and then it all went black.

The youngster standing on the seat noticed the old man collapse, and stopped his performance for a second. A bit bewildered he stepped down and walked down the aisle to see what had happened. The others stopped their joking and looked at their mate, still with the last grin on their faces. Then they slowly joined their friend who had reached the now empty seat. He saw the man lying partly on the floor with eyes wide open, and saliva running from the corner of his mouth; his face greyish white. He had clearly passed out; he might even be dead – or dying… The boy called to the others, “Emergency brake – now!” Then he bent over and loosened the man’s tie, pulled him out into the aisle and started heart compression. He seemed to know what he was doing.
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It is a point that this happens when the man has passed out. At that point he does not know that all his prejudices are being crushed. Perhaps he will learn later. Note that the angle does not change, the readers only get to know what the boy does, not what he thinks. And a touch of poetic language - "the now empty seat".

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Knightsbridge StationKnightsbridge Station
Forfatter: Jan-Louis Nagel
The train didn’t stop immediately, but slowed down into Knightsbridge station. The boy kept pounding the man’s chest and pulled back his head giving him two kisses of life every thirty thumps. Sweat appeared on his brow and his black tee shirt was getting wet down his back. When the train stopped two attendants came running, ready for what they thought had been a prank by kids out for some Friday night excitement. It would not have been the first time. They soon got a picture of the situation and they knew the drill.

After some minutes the ambulance arrived after having fought its way through the traffic on Sloane Street, and the paramedics came rushing down the steps with a stretcher. Before they left with the man, one of the ambulance men said to the boy, “Good work  ̶  you may have saved his life here, son – you probably have.”
In the streets above the ambulance was flashing its way through the late afternoon traffic toward Hammersmith Hospital, and the train continued its voyage into the dark and amazing underworld of London.
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An important detail is that his black tee shirt is mentioned again. The irony is quite obvious.  But note that it is not explicitly told, it is left to the readers to reflect on. It is also not mentioned whether the man survived, which is not so relevant for the plot. But according to the paramedics he probably did, and hopefully he later found out how. But that's another story. Note also the language - "voyage" instead of journey - which makes it sound more like a life journey. "The amazing underworld" also gives the end a poetic touch, indicating that surprising things may happen when you least expect them to, and "underworld" gives a different and more mystic association than "underground" which was used at the beginning.
The composition of the story is fairly chronological with a few flashbacks to give information about the protagonist's background.

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