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Storytelling Tip: The Principle of “Buts” and “Therefores”

By Michael Neelsen

When most of us first start to dabble in storytelling, we fall into the trap of what I’ll call “and then” storytelling.

How many copywriters write corporate scripts that are nothing more than a list of talking points, brand promises and market-researched language? “We value the customer, AND we always respect your budget, AND we have on-time delivery, AND…”

We’ve all seen way too much of this.

That kind of writing is not storytelling because there is no causality. There is no cause and effect, no action-reaction. To quote Badass Digest blogger and “Screenwriting 101″ author Film Crit Hulk:

“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story.”

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have developed a simple rule to help you avoid the trap of “and then” storytelling. Watch them in the video below.

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Trey Parker also explained this rule in the Comedy Central documentary “Six Days to Air,” about the making of an episode of South Park:

“[I call it] the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens and then this happens and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, butthis happened; whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” or “therefores,” it makes for better writing.”

Take a look at something we produced to see how this works in practice:

Von was living a happy life playing pool and raising a family, BUT one day he got laid off his job. He felt he couldn’t continue to live the life he wanted to lead without going back to school, THEREFORE he found Herzing University. He quickly found that the instructors at the law program of Herzing University were currently employed legal professionals, THEREFORE he feels more confident going into his own career than if he was taught by teachers with no law experience. Von’s son watched him go through this whole adult education experience, THEREFORE his son now wants to graduate from college.

You’ll notice that I only have one “but” compared to three “therefores” in my above synopsis of the video, and this will be a common tendency in a lot of brand storytelling. But never tell a story devoid of “buts” because then you will be telling a story without any obstacle to overcome.

Traditional corporate video producers’ refusal to respect what causality brings to a brand message is a large part of the reason why you’ve never really seen a “corporate video” that you liked so much you’d bring home to show your family or share with friends on Facebook.

Trey Parker’s principle of “buts” and “therefores” is a safety net. It is something you should always apply to any story you’re writing, whether for entertainment or business. It will ensure that your story adheres to causality, which will lend your message meaning. If you fall into the trap of “and then” storytelling, as Trey said in the video, “you’ve got something pretty boring.”