I recently read a book that didn’t quite work for me.
The writing was strong and the author did a masterful job of pulling all the diverse plot threads together, but something about the story somehow missed. It took me a couple of days of analyzing it to put my finger on the problem: too many buts, not enough therefores.
If you’re not a long-time follower of this blog, that phrase may not make sense to you. (It may not make sense even if you are.)
Let me explain.
The single greatest “Aha!” moment during my time in McDaniel’s Romance Writing Program was hearing Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about “but and therefore.” Here’s a short (2:14) video of the two men explaining this rule to a classroom of students at NYU.
Here’s an even shorter recap: When you lay out the arc of your plot, the individual events should connect to each other via “but” or “therefore.” Like this:
- Inciting event occurs.
- Therefore, second event occurs.
- Therefore, third event occurs.
- But, fourth event occurs (taking the story in a new and unexpected direction).
- Therefore, fifth event occurs.
If you have any kind of natural plotting ability, this epiphany may seem like “well, duh!” but for those of us who are not naturals, it is a life-changing bit of information.
Every event in your story should have a causal connection with preceding and/or succeeding events. As Parker so succinctly explains, if your plot fits together with “and then” as in “This happens and then this happens and then this happens”–you’re screwed.
Let’s think about this a little more deeply. “Therefores” proceed along an expected arc, based on the character and the situation they’re in. “Therefores” reinforce our understanding of who the character is and help us comprehend the flaw that keeps them from succeeding in their plot quest.
“Buts,” on the other hand, come winging out of left field. The character doesn’t see them coming and, generally, neither does the reader. “Buts” are great for livening things up.
In a story that has too many “buts,” though, we never really get to know the character. Instead of events being an outcome of the character’s flaw and choices, the book is just one shocker after another.
Several years ago, I read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I thought the prose was really strong, but what impressed me most about that book was that Lehane introduced the characters, put them in a terrible situation, and then kind of sat back and let their flaws drive the plot. It had an almost Shakespearean feel to it. His characters’ individual flaws gave them no choice but to behave in ways that combined to create a foreseeable but totally unavoidable tragedy. It was really powerful.
This recent book, by contrast, felt more like the characters had been shoved in a blender filled with tomatoes and rocks and firecrackers and matches. Just turn that sucker on and see what happens. (Hint: plan to buy a new blender when you’re done. Possibly a new kitchen.)
In addition, because the causal links were all based on surprises, the story wound up feeling like a series of coincidences. The connective tissue just wasn’t as strong as it needed to be.
How about you? Do you prefer lots of surprises and twists? Are you more into character development? Or do you completely disagree with my thesis?