“What makes a good story?”

Here’s a surprisingly concise answer to the above question, on Twitter:

Students at NYU asked the creators of South Park the million-dollar question: “What makes a good story?”

They gave one of the best explanations of story I’ve heard: “If we can take the beats of your outline, and the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the words ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’”

For something so concise, that seems pretty accurate, doesn’t it? Though I expect some “and then” moments will appear in the narrative as well. Let’s try it:

Gandalf appears right before Bilbo’s birthday party.

And then Gandalf forces Bilbo to leave the ring for Frodo.

And then Gandalf warns Frodo about the ring and sends him to Rivendell.

Frodo intends to go to Rivendell alone,

but Sam was eavesdropping and gets coopted in the quest. They set off,

but then threatening black riders appear.

Therefore, frightened, he accepts Strider’s help.

But, seduced by the ring, when he faces threats, he tends to put it on, so the black riders keep getting closer.

And then he is wounded by the cursed sword. All seems lost!

But then, in the nick of time, an elf snatches him from the black riders and carries him to safety.

And so on. What do you think? I think probably most events in the plot can easily be connected by “and then,” “but then,” and “therefore.”

Obviously any kind of reversal or anything unexpected will be hooked into the plot by “but,” and anything the protagonist does because of those unexpected events will be hooked into the story by “therefore.” But there’s definitely room for the plot to simply continue from time to time, and then those continuations will be hooked in by “and then.”

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2 thoughts on ““What makes a good story?””

  1. This is an interesting approach.

    Ryo’s brother leaves him as tuyo for a Lau warleader, Aras.

    But instead of killing him, Aras takes him to the summer lands.

    Therefore, Ryo is present to rescue Aras and many of his soldiers when the fengol comes down.

    Therefore, the Lau begin to trust Ryo and he them.

    Therefore, Ryo is present to help Aras negotiate with Hokino inKera to the benefit of both sides.

    But, Ryo realizes that Aras is a sorceror …

    etc.

  2. Of simple plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot episodic when there is neither probability nor necessity in the sequence of episodes.
    —Aristotle

    So this is one of the oldest ones in the book.

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