“And, But, Therefore”
Contrast is key to the structure of any story. For example, characters with a recognizable internal struggle provide the most engaging points of reference. It is actually easier to visualize a CEO who takes paternity leave, a hero who stutters, or an enemy who loves dogs than it is to imagine a one-dimensional character. Contrast in storytelling reflects the effect of painting red and yellow stripes side by side. The contrast makes both elements more vivid than they are when seen in isolation. The “and/but/therefore” template is a good way to keep contrast lively. In this framework, rather than progressing smoothly through narrative with only “ands,” a storyteller is encouraged to revisit conflict and consequences in the form of “buts” and “therefores.” For instance the character who hears a hotel’s fire alarm and grabs his briefcase and runs outside is less memorable than a character who hears the alarm and runs outside, but then remembers he left his briefcase containing $50,000 and therefore runs back into the smoke-filled lobby.
South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone popularized the application of “And, But, Therefore” as good storytelling advice. This template reminds us to refresh a story’s core contrast by illustrating wins and setbacks that make the core conflict feel more tangible. Parker and Stone suggest “whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ or ‘therefores’, it makes for better writing.” These writers know deep in their bones how to keep a cartoon TV series interesting. And this is great storytelling advice as long as we don’t invent random conflicts. Adding random “buts” unrelated to a story’s core conflict dilutes the realism and coherence of a story in ways that shift perceptions away from the true conflict.
Good storytellers come to understand that the “but’s” and “therefores” they seek already exist and only need to be emphasized. Margaret Atwood even demonstrates how “and, but, and therefore” can exist within a single sentence in her book, A Handmaids Tale: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” Which I take to mean that you may force me to say you didn’t hurt me, but you did hurt me, therefore I work to hide my hurt as well as work to endure the hurt.
Of course, the whole book goes into much greater detail about the price women pay when we remain silent about injustice. A Handmaids Tale vividly imagines the long-term emotional and physical consequences of silence in a way that makes the long-term consequences of “therefore I stay silent” demonstrably worse than the short-term consequences of the implicit alternative: “therefore I speak up.” Atwood affirms that every event and character in A Handmaid’s Tale was based on real people and real events. “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened.” Storytellers like Atwood understand that the best way to ensure a narrative feels real is to base it on reality, and reality is full of contrasts.
Excerpt from Chapter 11, 3rd ed. of The Story Factor (2019) AUDIBLE VERSION HERE