As I build my outline, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good scene, and that led to these posts: Test That Scene – Is It Essential or Filler? and Test That Scene – Cut or Revise? But what about stringing those scenes together? Is there a test for that?
Serendipitously I came across this article on Fiction University that talks about a trick used by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to make sure each scene advances the story and is not just a series of random stuff happening.
If you can put “but” or “therefore” between scenes, then congratulations! You’re advancing the story!
If you can’t use the above words and put “then” between the scenes, you’re not advancing the story.
For example (each sentence represents a scene):
I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch today. Then I went and bought a coffee at Starbucks. Then I worked on that spreadsheet. Then I checked Facebook for an hour. Then I went home.
That’s a string of random stuff happening, not a story. “Then” isn’t a connection, it’s a segue into something unrelated.
“But” and “therefore” are connections. “But” denotes conflict. “Therefore” implies a reaction. Both mean that the following scene isn’t random; it’s connected to the previous scene in a meaningful way. For example:
I ate a tuna salad sandwich for lunch, but the tuna was poisoned. Therefore I had to go to the hospital, but the hospital was overrun by zombies who bit me! And therefore I became a zombie.
Ridiculous, but you get the idea – connecting scenes with “but” and “therefore” make a story.
However, having a “then” every once in a while isn’t going to break your story’s back. Just take note when this happens and ask yourself if the next scene is really necessary, or if there’s a better way to connect the scenes, and make sure that you never follow one “then” with a bunch more.
Also note that if you have multiple plots and the story jumps back and forth between them, do this test on the plots separately. So get your A Plot scenes together and see if they’re connected with “but” and “therefore”, then put your B Plot scenes together and test for the same thing, et cetera.
So I applied this trick to Act I of my WIP and it brought to my attention a couple weak spots. Seeing the scenes attached by “then” revealed why these scenes, despite having conflict and change and all that good stuff in each, felt weak, like the story was taking a detour. Because it was!
And if you want to see how to apply “but, therefore and then” to beats inside scenes, check out Fiction University’s post The Best Advice On Plotting I’ve Ever Heard.
Did you try this trick? How did it turn out? Learn anything about your story?