November 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
What happened to you was powerful—but will anyone else want to read it? And which events from your life go in the book, anyway? Do you need more backstory? Or more action? Is the reader going to get it?
The foul-mouthed creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon know the answer. You might not love their sense of humor, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker are story-structure geniuses. Every set-up pays off. Every scene is necessary to understand the whole story. Every action is motivated—often by hatred, selfishness, egotism or pettiness, but viewers never wonder “Huh, why’d he do that?”
A couple of years ago, Stone and Parker visited NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to speak to a Storytelling Strategies class.
(Here’s a great two-minute video of the below, including additional f-bombs)
They tell the students:
Trey Parker: We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.
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 fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
…And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see…
Matt Stone: …you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens—and you’re going what the fuck am I watching this movie for? This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Revisit your manuscript. (This is a particularly good exercise if you’re stuck on your middle or ending.) List the scenes. What happens in each one? Can you connect each scene to the next with But! or Therefore… ? Do any of them connect with And then… ?
If a scene isn’t a “but” or a “therefore,” that still doesn’t mean cut it right away. Take another look. What’s literally happening in the scene, that you’ve written in the text as Then-You experiencing action and dialogue in the moment? What’s emotionally happening in the scene that’s clear in the subtext, or that you’re adding in the reflective voice of Narrator-You writing the book? Are both of those things fully present in what you’ve written?
My mom pulled out my drawers and dumped my clothes on the floor because she said they weren’t folded right.
And then I folded them all and put them back.
And then I went out and lost my virginity in the back seat of Susie’s car.
My mom dumped all my clothes on the floor.
Because I was afraid to defy her, and I still wanted her to love me, I folded them all the way she wanted and put them back.
But I wanted to show her she didn’t own all of me, therefore I went out and told Susie I wanted to lose my virginity now, and could I borrow her car?
Stilted as this is, isn’t it more exciting already?
The actual “therefore,” of course, doesn’t belong in your narrative. But each scene should imply that connection to the next, causation showing this scene could not have happened without that scene, therefore that scene is necessary to my story. This scene is that scene’s But or Therefore.
Then try working backward. Is each scene a specific result of something that has happened earlier? Is the end of your book the biggest Therefore of all?
Your scenes may not be in the exact order of causation—your timeline may show that long-past events were the “Because” of a present action, or Chapter 3 establishes a set-up that pays off in Chapter 9. But your conscious awareness of these connections will help you determine both if a scene belongs—and what the reader needs from this scene to move forward in your story.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!