Jeanne: Too Many Buts, Not Enough Therefores

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?

7 thoughts on “Jeanne: Too Many Buts, Not Enough Therefores

  1. I remember that video! It was a fun and succinct way to explain plot. However, like anything else, the devil’s in the details. All the Therefore clauses in the world won’t save you if your characters are flat and your writing is weak. Still, the Therefore idea is a handy reminder of what your book should have to keep the action flowing and the stakes increasing. And I can see why your recent read didn’t appeal to you much: Coincidences really work only once, at the beginning. After that, everything needs a Therefore.

    • Some of them were coincidences, but others were just a whole new plot thread coming out of left field. I will say, though, that she managed to tie it all together at the end. And it was a mystery rather than a romance, so much less expectation of character arc.

  2. I don’t mind a few rocks and firecrackers to get the story started, but after that, not so much. My favorite kind of story is when one character’s “therefore” is the other one’s “but.” So one character’s entirely logical reaction (at least from the reader’s perspective), throws the other into uncharted territory. And vice-versa. I think this is one of the many things that Lord of Scoundrels does so well.

  3. I like both, really. Although, the oddball “but” (random, deus ex machina) works better at the beginning, and may act like a plow to dig up the ground and make a really fertile place for the plot to grow.

    I read a book last week where the author seemed to introduce a new character out of the blue at about the halfway or 2/3rds point. I stopped for a minute and wondered if that was Lady Detective ex machina. However, it worked for me, because the story was otherwise intriguing, and hadn’t been written into a corner yet. The Lady Detective may have been subtly foreshadowed (and she was part of that Universe, I discovered later — readers who had read some of the earlier books in that world might have been just waiting for the Lady Detective to show up!). And, the Lady Detective really twisted the plot hard, and made everything work out OK for a happy ending, so it was fine. Her appearance gave the protagonist more agency, actually, and really made trouble and conflict for the antagonist/love partner.

    (This was KJ Charles’ *Any Old Diamonds*, which was pretty good m/m romance. And then I went out and bought the just-released *Gilded Cage* which is the bi-f/m romance story of the Lady Detective, and that was also quite good.)

Leave a Reply to Jeanne Oates Estridge Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s