Cartman walked into a room, and then shot Stan, and then walked out.
This is an “event”, it’s stuff happening without any dramatic element to keep the audience interested in what’s going on. Too many stories written by beginners are like this, and they lack both conflict and a dramatic core that will keep the audience interested.
In short bursts this can be fine (like a single scene), but if you want to keep your audience engaged it can be murder to your story.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park, and Team America) offer a simple solution to this problem- you should view a story as a series of cause and effect events, and reflect that in your plotting.
Replace “and then” with one of these three:
- And So (or Therefore)
See the Difference?
Old– Cartman walked into a room, and then shot Stan, and then walked out.
New– Cartman walked into a room to shoot Stan, but Stan was waiting for him, and so the two had a firefight and Stan was shot, but now the police were on their way, and so Cartman needed to escape, but the police arrived before Cartman could reach his car, therefore Cartman had to find a place to hide and ran into Rachel’s office, but…
We could go on from here as long as needed in a chain of cause and effect.
This works within a scene, but it’s also a great way to structure stories between scenes.
- Cartman finds he has no milk and then Cartman leaves his house.
- (and then) Cartman goes to the store.
- (and then) Cartman buys milk.
- (and then) Cartman pays for it and chats with the clerk.
- (and then) Cartman drives home.
- (and then) Cartman eats breakfast.
These are all “and then” scenes, strung together like a series of events.
(And then, the audience got bored and left…)
Let’s try using “but” and “and so/therefore” to connect them.
- Cartman finds he’s out of milk, and so he goes to the store.
- But at the first store they’re out of milk.
- Therefore, Cartman goes to another store.
- But, on the way he sees a car accident.
- And so he stops to help and gets involved in the rescue operation.
- But fuel is leaking from the car, which is on fire, and so he needs to get the passengers out quickly, but they’re trapped…
Using “But” and “And So” almost forces you as a writer to build conflict into the story.
Of course, most stories don’t just follow one character or line of plot, they often also follow other lines.
This is where Meanwhile comes in…
- Cartman discovers he’s out of milk, and so he goes to the store.
- Meanwhile, Stan and Kyle get ready to rob a grocery store.
- And so when Cartman gets to the store, Stan and Kyle are in the middle of robbing it.
- But Cartman is an off-duty police officer, and so he takes out his gun and tries to stop the robbery.
- But Stan spots Cartman, and Cartman is shot in the shoulder and so Stan leaves him to die on the deli floor.
- Meanwhile, the police respond to the alarm, and so….
The chain of cause an effect continues, and Meanwhile allows you to have multiple chains of Cause and Effect going on at the same time.
When you’re planning a story, trying writing each whole scene out as a single sentence. (Or, writing out the events of each scene as a series of sentences.) See if there are “and then” or “but/and so” connections between them.
If you find many “and then” connections, it likely means you’re just telling a series of events and not a story. Try to find a way to make most of them “but” or “and so” connections.
Whenever possible, the “buts” should come from within characters who are making choices, not just events being forced upon them.
If all the “buts” are because of outside events being done to the characters, the story will feel like God picking on them, not an interesting story about a person navigating through life.
You should try to mix it up so that the “buts” are coming from a mix of physical, mental/emotional and social reasons based around the character.
- Physical- Cartman can’t eat pizza because he’s allergic to tomatoes.
- Mental- Cartman can’t eat pizza because he’s on a diet.
- Social- Cartman can’t eat pizza because he forgot to bring his wallet, and he’s too embarrassed to tell his friends he can’t pay for it.
Be aware that it is still possible to write a really boring story using this method, and you still need a character making choices at the center of it, not just events.
Things happening to a well defined character and watching them deal with it are what makes stories interesting.
Also remember that “and so” includes characters changing as a result of “buts”, and those are often the most interesting stories of all!