But, Therefore

A sneaky powerful lesson in storytelling from the creators of South Park

Students at NYU asked the creators of South Park the million-dollar question: “What makes a good story?”

They gave one of the best explanations of story I’ve heard:

“If we can take the beats of your outline, and the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the words ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’”

They go on to say, “That gives you the causation between each beat, and that makes a story.”

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Point 1:

There’s an idea in storytelling called ‘Promise, Progress, Payoff.’

Essentially, a story is a never-ending cycle of promises that are paid off over the span of the story. It’s a cycle of expectation and resolution. Cause and effect. Conflict and progress.

Point 2:

A story isn’t a bunch of random events tossed together. A story is a series of but / because / therefore moments.

A famous example:

  • Harry discovers he's a wizard. Because of this, he goes to learn magic at Hogwarts.

  • But then he learns Voldemort wants to kill him and rule the world.

  • Therefore, he must find a way to defeat him.

Use this idea in the planning, not the writing.

Point 3:

‘And’ implies a simple continuation. ‘But / Therefore’ give prior events meaning through causation.

‘But’ implies conflict. ‘Therefore’ implies progress.

I’m reminded of a Hemingway quote:

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

Great storytelling is intentional. It doesn’t wander. It builds upon itself.

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Nathan’s Notes

5 things I found interesting this week:

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