writing advice from the creators of South Park
by Ruth Harris
The book you started with so much energy and optimism?
That idea you thought was so great?
Well, now that you’ve written mumble-mumble number of words, you’re not so sure.
You’re beating up on yourself.
You’re out of ideas.
Out of gas.
You’ve wasted your time.
Maybe you’re even about to give up.
You’ve convinced yourself you’re stuck with a go-nowhere draft.
Happens all the time and we’ve all been there.
But (and that’s the crucial word!), Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon, shared invaluable writing advice about how to rescue that hopeless (you think) blob.
Here, mostly in Stone and Parker’s own slightly edited words, is their practical advice.
How to ID the dead spots in your book — and how to fix them.
1. Make a list of the beats (the events) of your story.
2. Keep it simple.
Meaning: do not get into details of plot, character or dialogue.
3. Link those events and do not ever or under any circumstances use the phrase “and then.”
Instead, use bridging words like—
According to Trey Parker, “ If the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re in deep doo doo.”
Instead, he adds, “What should happen between every beat is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘OK, x happens’ right? And then y happens.’
“No, no, no. It should be ‘X happens, and therefore Y happens. But this happens, therefore that happens.’
Matt Stone goes on to expand: “This happened, and then this happened, and then [the other thing] happens. That’s not a story.
“It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.”
Stone and Parker go on to point out that If a pair of events join with “and then…” your book is boring at that moment.
“If you’re writing a novel, figure out what the protagonist or antagonist needs to accomplish at that moment—if they need to react to something that just happened, can that reaction be an action or a choice instead of merely emotional impact?
“Could they initiate a new action?”
Problems are easier to find and fix on this simplified map.
“As writers, by focusing on cause and effect, we discover the basic structure of the book, just as an artist sketches in black and white before breaking out the paints. The simple lines of a sketch show where their proportions are off, or how many people can fit in a landscape before it looks cluttered.
“Writing a synopsis from a first or second draft clearly demonstrates where your story shines and where it’s stuck.”
- Find your twists and your turning points with a list.
- Make sure the biggest “But” “Because” and “Therefore” moments are big in the manuscript, too.
- And do it before wasting your writing time polishing scenes that are just “And Then.”
In a novel, consider the difference between.
Anne Shirley is an orphan who goes to live with a new family. She finds out they might not want her after all, and then she tries to win them over. Also, she imagines a lot of stuff.
Anne Shirley can’t wait to meet her new family BUT they requested a boy orphan THEREFORE she must prove she’s loveable SO they’ll keep her. BUT she has a terrible temper THEREFORE when she’s teased about her hair she explode. BUT she’s also very imaginative and can empathize with hurting and being hurt, THEREFORE her extravagant apologies win people over.
In a memoir, your connections might jump through time.
My husband was an addict THEREFORE I went to Al-Anon to cope BUT I fell in love with another woman whose husband was also an addict. BECAUSE I wanted to stick out the marriage vows I gave her up. [AND THEN I recommitted to my marriage. AND THEN we fought about his addiction AND THEN we moved AND THEN we fought about money AND THEN we fought about the kids.] BUT ten years later she called me out of the blue BECAUSE she’d seen my husband’s obituary.
Stone and Parker continue with some great writing advice: “You know what our imaginary memoirist just learned writing her synopsis? That Act Two of the memoir has more drama if the author cuts everything in brackets and opens with a phone call where two people pick their way through an emotional minefield and the reader finds out the husband (finally!) died when the Other Woman mentions it.
“After identifying that drama and tension in the synopsis, the writer can revise Act Two to open with the phone ringing instead the funeral of a guy the reader doesn’t like. Then the memoirist might examine the end of Act One, thinking, Hmmm, how can I leave the reader in suspense about whether or not he dies?
“Maybe the memoir has more tension if Act One ends with the hope of recommitting, instead of making the reader slog through another 10 years of failing marriage. If the opening scene of Act Two includes telling the Other Woman, “It didn’t get better,” then in four words the writer has done the work of forty boring pages of the same marital fight again and again.” That’s some great writing advice.
Save time. Kill your darlings. Yes, it’s good writing advice.
As your final step in the But-Therefore-Because process, look back at any events in your book that didn’t make the list of important actions and choices.
Make them earn their place.
- Why must this event be in the book?
- Does it duplicate the dramatic purpose of something else on the list?
- Killing one’s darlings is much easier when you know they genuinely aren’t needed.
- And you’ll save precious writing hours by not bothering to revise events that aren’t needed.
So there it is: sensible, do-able writing advice from practicing writers.
Now go forth — and write a list.
(Or a synopsis.)
And bail yourself out.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 26th, 2023
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever tried this writing advice? It’s a big revelation to me. We know each scene should generate the next, but we don’t always know how. Does your WIP need this kind of help? I know mine does!
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