A couple of years ago, a video circulated around Facebook of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators and writers of the animated series South Park, in which they discussed a technique they used to constantly raise the stakes on both the plot and characters of every South Park episode. As the story progressed, rather than connect scenes with “and” and/or “and then”, they connected them with “but” and “therefore”. The latter not only raises the stakes and ratchets up the conflict (and the humor), but it also keeps a story from dragging.
This simple tactic changed my approach to novel writing. Whereas I might have done this instinctively, I now do it consciously. What’s more, when I read a problematic draft-in-progress (my own or someone else’s), the diagnosis is usually that the writer either hasn’t raised the stakes enough or has strung scenes together in an “and” or “and then” rather than the “but/therefore” manner. I’ve diagnosed the same problem in finished, published novels as well.
Here’s a description of my novel, Pasta Wars using “and then”:
Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. And then Katie flies to Italy to convince Gianluca to collaborate because he is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. And then a stubborn Gianluca insists Katie learn how to make pasta from scratch, and then the equally stubborn Katie stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, and she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…
Here’s the same sequence using “but” and therefore”:
Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Therefore, her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. But Gianluca is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. Therefore, Katie travels to Italy to personally convince him. But Gianluca is stubborn and insists she learn to make pasta from scratch, therefore Katie, who is just as stubborn stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, but she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…
Which story would you rather read? Why?
If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages.
You can even try this if you outline your scenes by inserting “but” and/or “therefore” between each note card, bullet-point, or however you outline.
Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome. Take it from Matt Stone and Trey Parker!
Activity/Discussion: Either draft a series of scenes or select a series of scenes from a work in progress and apply the but/therefore approach. How does it affect your characters and/or story?
(If you liked this post, wait ’til you see the next one!)