The Key to story structure in two words: Therefore & But
May 22, 2015
There are a ton of storytelling-related books and websites in the cosmos. And there is no shortage of people giving story advice and tips. Much of the advice is helpful, but the enormous volume of information related to writing or telling better stories can be overwhelming. Therefore, when someone credible comes along who offers free, insanely simple yet effective advice for improving one's story, he will find a very large audience indeed. This is exactly what happened just a few years ago, all quite by accident it would seem.
In 2011 Comedy Central began shooting a documentary about the process behind the creation of a typical South Park episode. The short film—"Six Days to Air: The Making of South Park"— focuses on the co-creators and lead writers for the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, as they and their team brainstorm ideas, write, rewrite, record dialog, and finally animate one entire show in just six days. The documentary begins as Matt and Trey return from New York City where their first Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, had just opened to rave reviews. Now back in Colorado, they find themselves with no ideas for the next episode of South Park and with the pressure of producing a show that will air in less than a week. This, they say, is all quite normal for them. The process is intense and the pressure is palpable, but without the crazy deadline, says Trey Parker, the episodes would never get finished. At first, Matt and Trey and a few other writers and producers sit in a room with a large whiteboard and bounce ideas around. Often Usually the ideas are absurd, but if it makes others in the room laugh, then they may be on to something. "For every good idea we get, there are a hundred not so good ones," Matt Stone says. (You can find the Six Days to Air documentary as an extra on the complete 15th Season of South Park DVD.)
Therefore & But
The entire documentary is insightful, but there is one 45-second bit that popped out to anyone who is interested in writing or telling stories. When talking about the frantic rewriting process of their script, Trey reveals his simple rule for rewriting and improving the story. "I call it the rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores." Trey says that a common trap a lot of writers fall into is describing actions and events in a typical "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...." This kind of X and then Y and then Z progression—similar to creating a list of things—is not engaging. This approach to writing (or speaking) is dull and does not generate momentum, let alone sustain it. Therefore, Trey says, "whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to "this happened, therefore this happens. But this happens..." In other words, says, Trey, "Whenever you can replace your 'ands' with 'buts' and 'therefores,' it makes for better writing."
Later that year in 2011, Trey and Matt surprised a “Storytelling Strategies” class at NYU as part of a mtvU series and offered up story advice, once again explaining the "Replacing ands with therefores and buts" story structure tip. Watch the 6-min clip below.
Get More: www.mtvu.com
Here's the transcript from the key part of the video above where Trey Parker explains their simple but oh so effective rewriting tip.
"Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want to have one scene and go ‘well, what was the point of that scene?’ So we found out this rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline. And if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you’re f****d. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word 'Therefore' or 'but,' right? So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘okay, this happens’ and then ‘THIS happens.’ No no no. It should be ‘this happens’ and THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ BUT ‘this happens’ THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ … And sometimes we will literally write it out to make sure we’re doing it. We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but ‘then this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels okay."
But, there's more...
Right, I'm sure you've got it, but here's one more explanation of the Trey Parker story tip. Below is a wonderful video essay by Tony Zhou where he explains how important Buts and Therefores are in creating a tight, well structured story. As Tony says, as much as possible, we want to avoid the dreaded "and then, and then, and then..." Tony also touches on Alfred Hitchcock's story structure technique called "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." This is where you have two (or more) things going in parallel. When you reach the peak of one then you can move to the other. You see this in films a lot. Tony Zhou is a remarkable video essayist. Checkout all of his video essays. He's a great teacher.
F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.
I first came across this therefore/but story structure tip in a great screenwriting book called Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk! This is one of the freshest screenwriting books I have ever read (and there are a gazillion screenwriting books). In the book, Hulk talks for a couple of pages about the Trey Parker and Matt Stone simple tip of changing ands to therefores and buts. After reading this I went out and purchased the South Park season 15 DVD just so I could get the documentaries which are included as extras. It was worth it.
Remember, there are no panaceas, but looking again at your writing—or your presentation structure—and going back and changing your 'and then' to a 'but' or 'therefore' can make a huge difference as you continue to tighten your story, giving it tension and momentum.
Garr that's a fantastic post! I didn't know about the effect of replacing "and" with "therefore" or "but". Really cool. Now I have to find this South Park doc as well : )
Posted by: Charles Martineau | May 24, 2015 at 01:41 PM
This has gotten me thinking about my writing style. I had naturally leaned toward "but" vs. "and" but have gravitated towards "and", because, as an analytical type, "and" made for a more inclusive, engaging tone, that balanced out a direct and authoritative style.
Posted by: steve | June 09, 2015 at 09:46 PM
This is fantastic indeed - pretty much everything on this site is!
Steve, I've also thought about the issue of "and" - we know that "yes, and" is the life-force behind improvizational comedy (rather than "no", "but"). And when giving feedback, "yes, and" is more powerful than "no, but". Perhaps these are simply different situations from storytelling via film, books, etc... more to think about!
I also wonder: ought we apply "therefore" to presentations that are not stories? Such as tech or policy presentations.
Presentations based on "and": A, and B, and C, and D... may turn into lists of things that aren't tightly bound together, and thus seem tedious, messy...
Presentations based on "therefore": A, therefore B, therefore C, therefore D... have, in contrast, a tighter logical structure binding the elements together.
Posted by: Podiumwisdom | August 17, 2015 at 07:06 PM