Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the renegades behind South Park, Team America: World Police and Cannibal! The Musical, tend to have very different needs as writers than most. The South Park schedule involves a great deal of crunch time for most every episode, considering their incorporation of recent events (including whatever vulgar goings on have happened just a week before an episode’s airdate). On top of this, they’ve had the same characters and setting at their disposal for the last 25 years. That’s a commitment that requires a spectacular repertoire of writing fundamentals.
In this video, Stone and Parker deliver an excellent, practical piece of advice, delivered in under 2 minutes, no less. Visiting the Tisch School of the Arts, they point to the whiteboard at the front of the lecture hall; their writer’s room contains what is effectively a wall-sized white board equivalent to this, namely: the wall. Across this wall they mark out their three acts, and begin to spitball ideas for scenes, each of which must function on their own as a sort of sketch (no scene can only be connective tissue).
How then do you ensure that these scenes, however funny, fit into the overall narrative of an episode, film or the like. The co-writers point to a simple rule, one that is great to keep in mind, but which took them ages to discover. Take your beats, the plot points of note in your outline, and ask yourself: “Do the words ‘and then’ belong between these beats?”. Per Stone and Parker, if the answer is yes, then, phrased in characteristically vulgar fashion: “You’re fu#^%ed.” A story in this form, lacking a sense of connective urgency, or a sense of momentum, is doomed to boredom.
Worry not, they provide a helpful fix: what should instead come between every beat in your story, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. It’s a simple way to keep track of whether or not you’re making use of those integral markers for producing involving storytelling: cause and effect, complication and conflict; the lifeblood of entertainment. Parker and Stone hold this rule in such high regard that they will literally stop to check whether or not they are sticking by it throughout the creation of an episode (from inception to final draft), since they see plenty of professional productions failing to pass the test (including feature films, much to their astonishment and chagrin). It should be understood implicitly: causation must drive your story forward, or else it cannot be considered a story at all. Rather than a rote list of events and ideas, formless and dramatically flaccid, the use of ‘therefore’ and ‘but’ as divining rods in story editing imply purpose, which should be of great interest to any writer.
After all, providing purpose may well be one of storytelling’s most inherent aims, even on an episode of a TV series which has played host to some of the crudest humour in entertainment history. Regardless of your perspective on Stone and Parker’s lack of tact, their show has been on for decades. Take notes.