My Favorite Writing Exercise Comes from Southpark

I watch this video at least once a year.

Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone give this fantastic piece of writing advice about how they put their stories together:  They write up all of their story beats, and make sure that each idea, each moment, each action, can be connected with the words “but” or “therefore.”

If they find they can only connect their ideas by using “and”…well, they’re in trouble.

I can’t tell you how much this has helped me over the years, especially because I’m writing books based on a true story. I know what the events are, I know the order in which they occur. But what I don’t know is WHY everything happened the way it did.

By writing out, and forcing myself to put a “but” or a “therefore” between every scene/beat/action/idea, I start to see cause and effect. Often I move characters around so I can put them at the center of the action, where they belong. I make sure they CAUSE things to happen, or fight AGAINST them.

Basically, it’s another way of thinking about cause and effect.

I even do this late in the process, after the book is written, when I’m deep into revisions. I’ll go back to index cards, summarize every scene on a card, and make sure I can link them with post-its that say BUT or THEREFORE. I always find the holes in my story this way.

Caveat: If you have more than one plot line going, do a different BUT/THEREFORE for each subplot. When you hook the whole thing back together again, there’s just no way around the fact that you’re going to have some MEANWHILEs in there.