Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Two Favorite Writing Things This Month

I was talking with a writer a few weeks ago, and she noted that one of her favorite writing lessons had come from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon, among many other imaginative and foul-mouthed productions. After she described the principle, I went and looked up Messrs. Parker and Stone talking about it, and found this fantastic video from MTVu:

I like their advice on moving on at 2:40 -- when you stop learning from a project, it's probably time to stop fiddling with it and try something else. But I love, love, LOVE what they say around 3:58 about "Therefore," "But," and "And Then." As I wrote it out for my recent Plot Master Class (giving full credit to the gentlemen):

So much as it is possible in a manuscript, every scene should be followed by another scene that dramatizes either a “Therefore” or a “But,” not an “And Then.” So if, in one scene, a girl has intimate eye contact with a beautiful male vampire, the next scene should either dramatize the consequences of that eye contact, which will likely raise the stakes or escalate the emotion—THEREFORE she kisses him; or introduce a complication/obstacle—BUT she remembers she hates vampires, so she drives a stake through his heart. If they continue to stare into each other's eyes, or maybe they just get some tea, that’s an AND THEN—nothing new is happening, because it’s at the same level of emotion as the previous action, and so while movement is occurring in the plot, it isn't necessarily dramatic action. And action is ultimately what keeps readers reading:  change, challenge, consequence, growth, for a character in whom they're invested.
(There is one other category here, which is "Meanwhile": If, MEANWHILE, the girl’s werewolf best friend was running shirtless through the woods, and came upon a rabbit and ate it, that’s an acceptable followup scene to the eye contact, because you're following a different plotline. But the rabbit scene would then need its own BUT or THEREFORE, and I would hope to heaven that you ended the eye-contact scene in an interesting place, so that readers will be excited to switch back to that plotline and find out what happens there.)

My other Favorite Writing Thing of late is DAVID MAMET'S MEMO TO THE WRITERS OF "THE UNIT," which I put in all caps because by God, this is an all-caps document. This applies more to TV writers than to novelists, who do not have the camera to convey information. But every scene in either medium should involve a character's desire, for certain, for an object or something emotional from another person or an answer to the internal question that he's trying to work through; and it's very useful to identify that desire when you're going back to revise a scene, and then show how the character has that desire satisfied, changed, or denied through the course of the scene's action.


While I'm here, a little conference stuff:

I will make a guest appearance at the Highlights Revision Retreat and Critique Group Recharge at the end of May. Spots are still available if you'd like to join for the week!

Since I was not a winner in the New York City Marathon lottery, alas, and hence will not be running three-plus hours on the weekends in the autumn (though why I feel "alas" about this, I'm not sure), I have an opening in my schedule this fall, and would be up for a conference or my Plot Master Class in either September or November, should anyone still be looking for an speaker.

And I'm also on the faculty for the pretty damn amazing-looking Speakeasy Literary Society Retreat next April in Lake Tahoe, California.


  1. Thanks for the helpful post, Cheryl. I've passed it on to my writing friends. And thanks for introducing me to the Speakeasy Literary Society. Didn't know it existed. Looks like a meeting of minds. I will apply for membership and see what happens. It would be great to attend the retreat. Besides the great company, Tahoe should be beautiful then.

  2. Great post, Cheryl. I've shared it with our SCBWI Tokyo members, and we're looking forward to your distance Plot Master Class in June!

  3. Loved that vid. The But, Therefore and then makes so much sense. I need to make sure all my plotlines do that!

    Looking forward to "meeting" you at SCBWI Tokyo's Intensive.

  4. "therefore" "but" "meanwhile" "and then" -- What a great way to summarize this and make the message stick in our heads. Thanks for this!

  5. I love that "but," "therefore," and "meanwhile" advice. It might also be possible to do a "because" scene if you're writing a story that jumps around in time.

  6. Genius! Cheryl thank you so much for sharing that video. I feel like the "therefore" or "but" over "and then" rule describes the exact problem I've had with several middle grade novels I've read recently. Now I have a better understanding of what was wrong with them!

  7. Thanks for sharing this video, it made me laugh AND gave some pretty good advice!

  8. Cheryl - I read this when you first posted it, filing toward the back of my head as interesting advice I may use someday. Someday is today. I just made it a big sign to post over my desk. Thanks for sharing and adding your own thoughts.

  9. Came by way of Janice Hardy, always glad to find a great new blog to follow! Loved the clip, and I love their show. It's funny to think about those guys as story tellers, but they truly are.

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