TREY PARKER & MATT STONE, creators of South Park, at the 1999 Oscars. photo from reelfanatics. 

TREY PARKER & MATT STONE, creators of South Park, at the 1999 Oscars. photo from reelfanatics. 

STRUCTURE: THEREFORE AND BUT

Matt Stone & Trey Parker, creators of South Park, writers of the absolutely genius Broadway hit Book of Mormon, gave some simple but vital writing advice to NYU students (click link for their full lecture). 

When outlining, they hold themselves to this rule: between any two scenes you could fit the words 'THEREFORE' or 'BUT'. 

In Scene A, Little Smitty pisses off the Mafia Don. THEREFORE in Scene B, the Mafia Don steals Little Smitty's dog. There is a relationship and a progression between the scenes. Or, In Scene A, Little Smitty pisses off the Mafia Don. BUT in Scene B, Little Smitty's mother starts dating the Mafia Don. There is now a CONFLICT, a COMPLICATION that has resulted from what's happened in these two scenes. 

The South Park guys rightly say that if you can fit any other word between your scenes -- especially 'AND THEN' -- you've got a structure problem. Your scenes shouldn't just dribble from one to the other. That makes for boring, boring, boring NON-DRAMA. This is a problem that we see again and again. And ultimately, it is a problem of discipline. 

You sell yourself short if you do not create a great outline before you begin the writing process. We'll say this again and again. The outline is your map. The writing process is a thick, dark wood. You are lost in there without your map. 

Think of it like this: Outlining requires a certain set of brain functions: discipline and problem-solving. It is hard, sweaty work that will make your every cell scream to be released into the relief of actual writing. Writing dialogue and describing atmosphere is a deeper, instinctual process, where you seem to go to another place, where you lose track of time. This part of writing is the reward for the hard work you put into your outline. If you jump into the second part of that process, you'll never get out because you're not using those other, more conscious brain functions. 

Hold yourself to the Therefore and But rule when outlining and you'll thank yourself for it later.