Therefore

Share

A few months ago, I attended a workshop given by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein (she’s amazing — if you have the opportunity to take her class, do it!).  She shared with us a simple rule of plotting that she’d picked up from Matt Stone and Trey Parker (creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon): If you line up every scene or plot beat in your book, and the only words that connect them are “and then,” you have a problem; instead, each scene needs to be connected with either “therefore” or “but.”

Put simply, your book should go something like: “A therefore B therefore C but D therefore E but F.”  Rather than “A and then B and then C and then D…”  You can see Matt and Trey talk about it more here.

This sounds really simple, but it really works.  Essentially what they’re saying is that there needs to be a causal connection between the scenes of your book.  I think of it like setting up dominos — the inciting incident is when you push that first domino and that sets everything in the book in motion.  If you don’t push that domino, the book doesn’t exist — nothing happens.  But once that first domino falls, it causes a chain reaction.  Every action in the book is tied to every action that came before.  

So, imagine that a giant, a Spaniard and a Sicilian kidnap Hero’s true love (we’ll call her Tulip) and haul her up a cliff.  Therefore, Hero chases after them to get her back.  But the trio sees him coming and throws obstacles in his way which Hero overcomes.  Therefore Tulip and Hero are reunited again.  But, Tulip’s fiance, Prince, has found them and will kill the hero to get back his Tulip.  Therefore Hero and Tulip escape into a swamp.  

At every point above, there is action and forward movement — nothing is static.  If you look at each scene and ask, “Why did this happen?” you point necessarily to the preceding scene(s).  Why did Hero climb the cliff?  Because the trio kidnapped his love.  Why did they throw obstacles at him?  Because he was coming after the girl they’d kidnapped.  (note: it doesn’t always have to follow a therefore/but/therefore/but pattern — just happened that way above).  

Notice what didn’t happen — …”and then Tulip decided to pull out her knitting to finish up that project she’d started back at the castle since winter is coming…” Which, okay, that’s a bad example of “and then” but hopefully you catch my drift.  Each scene escalated what came before — nothing was static.  

So what happens if you have multiple plotlines and/or characters?  Cheryl Klein refers to that as the “meanwhile.”  Essentially, even with multiple plotlines each should follow the therefore/but rule.  (i.e. if you have plot 1 and plot 2 it could look like: 1A therefore 1B therefore 1C meanwhile 2A but 2C meanwhile 1D therefore 1E, etc.)   The way I think of it is that if you pulled out each individual plotline into its own file, they’d follow the same “therefore/but” rule.  

Thus you have: Prince regains Tulip and tries to marry her at the castle; therefore, Hero and his new Spaniard friend crash the wedding; but once they get inside, the Spaniard discovers the man who murdered his father; therefore the Spaniard fights the man; meanwhile, Hero finds Tulip; but, the Prince interrupts their happy reunion;  therefore, Fiance and Prince fight.

Maybe you look at the Tulip and Hero examples and you think, “Yeah, but I could just as easily replace each ‘therefore’ and ‘but’ with “and then,'” and you’d be right.  But that’s not the issue — the problem comes when you can’t replace an “and then” with a “therefore” or “but.”

Therefore, as you’re thinking through your plots (at any stage: planning, drafting, revising), be aware of the the “glue” that’s connecting each scene and plot beat to the next and make sure every one is a “therefore/but” and not “and then.” 

Share

29 comments to Therefore

  • Carrie, this is an awesome post! I’ve never thought about it this way–of course it works the same way in freshman comp essays, too. That pattern is good for non-fiction, too. And I have to say I laughed out loud at the “(creaters of South Park and the Book of Mormon.)” And here I thought it was Joseph Smith! I can’t help but wonder what that book, or the Bible, or any sacred text, really, would look like written by Matt and Trey. :)

  • wookiee

    Thanks for sharing the simple rule of plotting – it’s something I notice often about books I don’t like that much, but didn’t have a good way to explain why.

  • Ken

    Thanks Carrie,

    This was a fantastic post, and completely, something that I’ve never realized before. Therefore, I am going to apply this to my current WIP and see what happens, but I’m at the day job (On a break…honest). Therefore, I have to wait.

    Oh and references to The Princess Bride AND Game of Thrones? Fortunately, my awesome meter goes up to eleven.

  • sagablessed

    Ken and Pea: ditto. Can’t say more but “ditto”.
    Gives me a new way to look at how my plotlines are working.

  • Carrie, never heard it before but totally LOVE this! It so simple and elegant. Hmmm. This may also explaing the doldrums I am in now with the WIP.

  • Adding my voice to the chorus, Carrie. Wonderful post, and illustrated perfectly with the Princess Bride examples. Of course, now I have Billy Crystal’s voice going through my head, which is going to be incredibly distracting for the rest of the day. “Don’t rush me sonny. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles…”

  • Gypsyharper

    I read about this method somewhere before, but had forgotten about it. The Princess Bride examples will totally make it stick in my head this time. :) And I’m really glad you reminded me, because I think it will be useful as I’m trying to craft an outline in an attempt to get my WIP back on track.

  • Like the rest, I love this and the post comes at a perfect time for me. Yesterday I had to stop and regroup with WIP, and this has already helped me figure out where I went wrong!

  • OMG. I’m adding this to my outlining method! I’m really excited to get home and work on this!

  • pea_faerie — I totally meant to clarify that they wrote the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (which is apparently really amazing). If you’ve seen the first Southpark about Christmas… that’s how I imagine they’d write a sacred text.

    wookie– glad it helps! And it’s good to know that you’ve been able to look at books you didn’t like and realize this was a reason why. I think it’s always a good idea to analyze what you like and don’t like in books as a way of improving your own craft.

    Ken — yay that you got the references :) The first one easy but I was wondering how many would get the GOT. I like thinking of Tulip knitting her socks at Winterfell. Good luck applying this rule to your WIP and let us know what you find!

    Sagablessed– thanks! It’s useful to have various ways to examine your plot to prod for weaknesses.

    Faith — usually I’m suspicious of broad stroke rules that are so succinct… but this one seems to work pretty well!

    David — you could have worse movies stuck in your head :)

    Gypsyharper — you should also read Cheryl Klein’s blog post (linked up at the top). She uses Twilight as an example and it’s awesome. Her post on this topic is really fantastic and worth a read!

    SiSi — excellent! So happy it’s helped get back on track with your WIP!

    LScribeHarris — love to hear that you’re excited about getting back to your WIP – I think excitement is key!

  • quillet

    Oh, wow! I love this! I can’t wait to apply it to my WIP, it makes so much sense! (Am I using too many exclamation points? Inconthievable!)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I agree with the others that this is a simple and super useful rule to keep in mind. But my question is: Does this then require the reader to be “in on” some of the behind-the-scenes forces going on in a book to keep the therefore-but flow of things going?

    For example: Girl falls in love with an elfin knight under the full moon, but when the moon goes down he disappears needing moonlight to exist, therefore she goes home to await the next evening and the rising moon, but her mother knows the elf-knight will just steal the girl’s soul if she’s not wearing hot pink when she meets him, therefore the mother takes her out on a weird shopping trip, but girl doesn’t like hot-pink, therefore she resists her mother’s suggestions, therefore SUSPENSE.
    If we don’t know about the mother’s knowledge, it reads like: Girl goes home to await her love at the next rising of the moon, AND THEN her mother drags her out on a weird, annoying shopping trip, AND THEN when she goes to meet her love he tries to steal her soul.

    That isn’t a terribly fabulous example, because I *have* run across this sort of thing in books before where the author *did* at least seem to have a reason for *not* wanting to reveal that key BUT part of the story (at least not yet) for the sake of the larger mystery/suspense of the book…

  • Thanks for posting this, Carrie! I will definately give this a try.

  • This seems like a great writing/plotting principle. I do think there’s room in the world for unexpected causal interruptions: “And thens” that can’t be reduced to a “therefore” or a “but”. Something novel that isn’t presaged within the existing of the story. However, it seems this should be a rare occurence, or the story will lose coherence. My intuition suggests it would work best to do this sort of thing early in a story.

    Admittedly, no examples of this being done well spring immediately to mind.

  • Razziecat

    Hepseba, I think your example can still work with this method. Just think of it as, “Girl awaits the elf-knight’e return, BUT her mother insists on taking her shopping and insists she must have hot-pink; BUT the girl resists, THEREFORE when the elf returns he steals her soul.” You could also switch to mom’s POV: “Daughter says she’s met her true love in the moonlight, BUT mom knows he will steal her soul, THEREFORE…” and so on. Using mom’s POV means the reader will be privy to mom’s knowledge of the dangers of elf-knights and the magical protective powers of hot pink. :)

  • Wow, Carrie. This made my head spin. I am totally going to use this as a plotting tool now, because I think it will play a wonderful role in crafting outlines. 😀 Thank you so much for this!

  • It suddenly makes sense – The Princess Bride, that is.
    I love this advice. I can see how it would push aside the true ‘and then’ scenes. I’m going to try it on the revision of a book I just finished drafting.

    Thanks, I love new tools and techniques.

    Perry

  • Wow, great post! I’ll be adding this to my toolbox as well. It’s currently empty, so this will be the very first tool in it :)

  • This is a very interesting idea. I’ll give it a try while I’m doing my next outline. For my simple outline this will work to make sure that I’m still on track. It’s definitely an original way to look at it.

  • Excellent. A couple of my beta readers made comments that I didn’t quite know what to do with but I now know what I need to do. The feedback was to recap more and to make the consequences of character actions more obvious. From reading this post I think it is simply (and I use the term loosely) a matter that my readers sometimes didn’t see the “therefore” or “but” as clearly as I could. I’m going to have a go and listing each point and making sure it logically moves via consequence.

    Thanks.

  • Vyton

    This is great! I’m going through my WIP and check it out. Thank you.

  • Great post, Carrie. Love this. Therefore will incorporate.

  • quillet — I always joke that I use a ton of exclamation points in my emails and blogs because they’ve been stored up from not being used in my manuscripts.

    Hepseba– that’s a good question and I’d be interested to hear what others think. It’s hard to come up with examples for this stuff but one thing I’d point out from your example is that you suggested there would be suspense involved because the girl resisted her mother’s suggestions. But from the reader POV this suspense doesn’t exist — we don’t know about the danger to know there should be any suspense. There’s a part of me that would lean toward saying that even if there are behind-the-scene forces at work, the scene that the reader is reading still needs to follow certain rules – that there be tension and action in the scene that the reader does see (and again I point to Cheryl Klein’s post on this topic linked to above).

    The reason there needs to be tension and action is that there needs to be a reason for the reader to turn the page. If the reader is unaware of any tension/action, then to them the scene will read static — nothing changing or really happening. At the same time, I think you might not need to tell the reader about what the mother is trying to accomplish — you can get at that tension/action in another way. So maybe it becomes: “Girl plans on going to see the Elfin King the next night, but the mother interferes throwing into doubt whether the girl will be able to see him.” So basically you now have the mini goal of “girl wanting to see Elfin King” with the obstacle of “mom’s interference.” The author can certainly drop clues that the mother is behaving oddly and make the reader wonder if there’s something else going on as well — that creates another layer of tension (i.e. “what is the mother hiding?”)

    Regarding the larger idea of an author witholding key information from a reader, this is something I’m always wary of. It’s definitely important to a lot of stories, but there needs to be a very compelling reason why the author or another character is withholding that information (one of my recent MW blogs was about this and tension). It’s very easy for an author to withhold info because it’s convenient and every time I find myself (or a crit partner) doing this, I challenge them on it.

    So in your example — there has to be a very very good reason why the mother wouldn’t say “If you don’t wear hot pink, you’re toast.” What could keep a mother from saving her daughter? If that reason isn’t iron clad, then as a reader I feel cheated and that the author was taking the easy way out.

  • Stephen — that’s what I find interesting, how difficult it is to actually come up with “and then” examples. As I was trying to make one up and thinking through a lot of movies and books, I struggled. It really made me wonder just how often a successful story actually has just an “and then.” Cheryl Klein in her post (linked above) uses the example of Twilight. But I also think that perhaps the “therefore/but” in some scenes may not be this huge event like a sword fight or a kiss. It could be a subtle shift in the character’s emotions. This may seem small, but it’s still forward movement as a result of a previous scene. The key is that when you think of plot structure it looks like a mountain with the tension rising and the moment of the story pushing forward. Because “and then” can be static, it stops this forward momentum in both ways.

    I think part of the difficulty in coming up with an example is that “and then” can often feel unnecessary to the plot and if it’s unnecessary, it should be cut. I’ve long been in favor of the “rule” that if you can cut it and the story doesn’t collapse, it should be cut.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I apologize that my example wasn’t very clear. I meant to say that if the reader *does* know what the mother knows, *then* there’s suspense. But I really like you’re suggestion about getting at that sideways by dropping clues – perhaps things the readers will pick up on but not necessarily the girl. Will definitely have to think about this more. Thank you. 😀 And I definitely agree with you that information should only be withheld for very good reasons, I just wish it were easier to know when the reasons are good enough. :)

    And then the willow tried to eat them and they were rescued by Tom Bombadil. I know people whose very favorite character is Tom Bombadil, but they are in the minority.

  • sjohnhughes — I remember a friend blogging about that sort of situation – where the author feels that they’ve made things clear but beta readers disagree. She said that when an author thinks they’re being subtle, they’re often being obtuse and when they think they’re being obvious, they’re often being subtle. I think part of it has to do with the fact that for an author, all the connections between the events are crystal clear. They know what information is important so when they read back over their own stuff, they always see/ingest that info.

    Which won’t be the same for the reader — they might skim over important details, not remember them, or just not put the clues together. That’s why I try to focus on signposting in revision — making sure I’m being clear to the reader what they need to know. Sometimes this means bring information back up, sometimes this means not burying the info in a paragraph, and sometimes it’s as simple as starting each chapter making sure to ground the reader in setting, POV and time.

    Unfortunately, all of that takes tweaking which is why it’s great to have beta readers (and a fresh pair of eyes once you’re done — someone who hasn’t read and ingested the info they need!)

  • Hepseba — it’s interesting because I was just having this conversation with a writer friend last night – when the reasons are good enough. I think in the end it has to come down to: is the character only doing this because I need her to for the plot? Or would she be doing this regardless of the plot? I call the former “twisting the plot” — when you’re fighting and rearranging so hard to make something work that just doesn’t want to work naturally.

    The other thing to keep in mind is this: if I heard a sound in my basement right now, I’d prob go down and see what it was. If I were a character in a horror movie, the audience would be screaming at me that I’m a moron for doing that. That’s because the audience *knows* what’s expected. By the very fact of existing, every action in a story will have consequence and while the character is often unaware of this, the reader isn’t unaware. So things that in real life might seem natural suddenly become unnatural in fictional life.

    Same with connecting the dots — if I’m looking for Special Object in real life and I overhear two different people mention the name of Special Object randomly in a day, I might think nothing of it. After all, it’s just a random comment in an otherwise very full day! But in a book, you won’t be showing the entire day, you’ll be showing those two moments where the character overhears the mention. So automatically the reader will put two-and-two together and assume the two instances are related — otherwise, why would they be in the book?

    Alfred Hitchcock is credited with the phrase “refrigerator moment” which basically means that you want your movie-goer so wrapped up in the movie that it isn’t until later that night when they’re standing at the refrigerator looking for a snack that they realize, “Hey, wait! That part of the movie couldn’t work!” Same with books — you want your reader so caught up that it isn’t until later that maybe they prod at those weak points (I think Hunger Games is a great example of this for a book).

  • […] A simple but very effective technique for plotting. This is a great insight into how plots can and should work at their core. You can see the posts here. […]

  • […] I read this blog post by Carrie over at Magical Words, I felt really silly. It was such an Ah Ha! moment that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t […]