This is one of my favorite tidbits, made ever-cooler by its origin. It’s a trick that comes from the writers of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. I first learned of it from the documentary about how an episode gets made, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park.
The WriteOnSisters blogged about it recently, and they have a really nice explanation:
If you can put “but” or “therefore” between scenes, then congratulations! You’re advancing the story!
If you can’t use the above words and put “then” between the scenes, you’re not advancing the story.
For example (each sentence represents a scene):
I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch today. Then I went and bought a coffee at Starbucks. Then I worked on that spreadsheet. Then I checked Facebook for an hour. Then I went home.
That’s a string of random stuff happening, not a story. “Then” isn’t a connection, it’s a segue into something unrelated.
“But” and “therefore” are connections. “But” denotes conflict. “Therefore” implies a reaction. Both mean that the following scene isn’t random; it’s connected to the previous scene in a meaningful way. For example:
I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch, but the tuna was poisoned. Therefore I had to go to the hospital, but the hospital was overrun by zombies who bit me! And therefore I became a zombie.
You can see how this is capable of getting out of hand rather quickly, South Park-style.
I think Matt and Trey’s original may have been “but” and “so”, but “therefore” is more polished. 😉
It’s an excellent tool, one I don’t use enough. Plot is about cause and effect, not just a string of events (“thens”).