Compelling writing can transport you to another dimension full of Gary’s.
You come home after a long day at the office and enter your apartment building. You stroll wearily to the open elevator, looking forward to a refreshing PB&T sammich.
Unfortunately, your annoying 13th-floor neighbor Gary has just come through the front door, noticed you, and is trying to ride up with you. You sneakily smash the ‘close door’ button as hard as you can until that sweet moment of relief hits and Gary is left annoying himself in the lobby where he belongs.
Thank the gods for the ‘close door’ button. Nobody likes those annoying people on the 13th floor. Especially Gary.
Now I’d like to ask you a few quick questions:
- Did this story make sense?
- Was the logic behind it coherent?
- Do you have a similar story with the ‘close door’ button?
- Did you want to punch Gary because he reminded you of your own egregiously annoying neighbor who will not stop asking you for cups of sugar while ranting about the tasteless benefits of quinoa and how he always knew he was allergic to gluten but never realized it until he met this amazing psychic who told him something was wrong with his chakra and it must be because of the same bread he’s been eating ever since he was a child?
If you answered yes to the first 3 questions, congratulations. If you answered no to question 4, I envy you.
But the reason I wanted to share this little story with you is to show you an example of a technique you should strongly consider adding to your writing.
South Park is Amazingly Effective
Let us start with one of my favorite topics to poke fun at: the insanely rich.
But in this case, we’ll learn from them instead of condemning them for causing the late-stage capitalist hellstrom we all currently reside in.
Trey Parker is a great writer.
He and South Park co-creator Matt Stone just signed a $900 million deal to produce 6 more seasons and 14 more movies of the show. All this after creating one of the longest-running television series in history with 23 seasons to date.
Whether you love or hate the series, South Park captivates people because of its writing. And among all the tips and tricks used to produce the episodes in a crazy 4-day schedule, one rule, in particular, stands out for making the show so successful.
“Whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefore’, the writing is better.” — Trey Parker
And that makes perfect sense. Hear me out.
Wikipedia vs Gary
You’ve probably heard of ‘show, don’t tell’ before. The best way to explain this idea is to imagine a long Wikipedia article about the aforementioned annoying Gary.
You can probably guess how it might look like already, because these articles are always the same:
- Early years
- Section, section, section
- Conclusion/Modern times
Or something thereabouts.
Personally, I am fascinated by these articles. Well, maybe not about Gary, but I have to be in a certain mood to go down a Wiki hole.
Because they are just plain boring.
They show me the information in a logical order. They do not try to entertain me with reasons and arguments and jokes about swamp people.
- That happened.
- Then this happened.
- Then this happened.
- Then that happened.
- Etc, etc, ad infinitum.
This is an outline trap we writers often fall victim to if we’re not careful. It’s all about telling and stating facts.
It’s not showing us the story of why it happened and what it looked like.
And, But, Therefore
That’s the beauty of replacing ‘and’ with ‘but’ and ‘therefore’.
If you were to write the same Gary Wiki article again and say:
“In his younger years, Gary grew up in a swamp where his only companions were alligators and awfully rude rednecks, and so in his later years he annoyingly tried to befriend anyone and everyone who did not have a red or green neck.”
It adds logic to the passage. It makes it more interesting. It adds a ‘why’ behind the facts and statements of what happened later.
And that’s what made Trey Parker and Matt Stone hundreds of millions of dollars.
But why do we like it? Why can not we just eat a punch card full of facts and memorize them like a giant 2KB computer of yesteryear?
There are many reasons, but the two I’d like to point out here are the power of narrative and post hoc logic fallacy.
Transport Yourself into Another World
Our brains need stories that make sense. It’s the neurological version of a hot iron pressed to a sticker resting on top of our brains. It gets imprinted.
In fact, “Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.”
When information is presented in the form of a narrative, it slowly engages our entire brain. If we find the story interesting, we enter into it. It envelopes us until we take a break or the tale is finished.
Some psychologists call this effect ‘Transportation Theory’.
It’s why someone can come up to you and surprise you while you’re reading a juicy novel, but you’d catch them coming a mile away if it was a textbook called Why Being an Accountant is Super Cool, Kids!
A story is much easier to remember than 1001 facts. That’s why so many students memorize whimsical mnemonics instead of all the fantastic individual ingredients for peanut butter and tuna sandwiches.
Facts are boring, stories aren’t. PB&T is delicious.
Our brains love stories that make sense. Even when they don’t actually make sense upon closer inspection. Some people just never bother doing the latter.
I push an elevator button to close the door, the door closes. Gary stays outside. We feel good. The button to close the door closes the door.
Except it doesn’t, at least in the vast majority of American elevators since the 1990s. Due to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, most manufacturers ensure their elevators give ample time for everybody to get inside. Even the Gary’s.
But they kept the button.
It reassures us when we push it. The door closes after we perform an action. The door would close even if we didn’t push the button, but that doesn’t make our little monkey brains light up in ecstasy over Gary’s misfortune.
So the button stays. Our faith remains. The world makes sense.
Now think about your writing.
It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, not really. Both need a narrative, a story, something for our brain tendrils to latch onto so we remember the feeling and immerse ourselves in your world.
But so often we forget that.
We get caught up in the outline of a piece. This cool thing happened, and then this amazing thing happened, and then a bunch of sexy sex sexual coitus-like copulation-ish things happened to seal the Pulitzer.
That’d be a surefire winner, right?
No, Gary, no, it will not. It’s way too boring for our primate brains.
But that’s exactly why it’s a great way to check your logic by going back over your story CTRL + F’ing all the ‘ands’ to see if a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ might fit instead.
Check your logic, yo.
The Words Must Logically Flow
If you have too many ‘ands’ that cannot be replaced by a ‘but’ or a ‘therefore’, your story is likely to be boring when read through someone else’s eyes.
If you have lots of ‘ands’ that fit the rule — that bring a certain flow and logic to the story — then congratulations!
Now make sure the cause and effect are logical too.
Does the reasoning make sense to someone not in your crazy head? Did the action of A cause C because B happened? Does the ‘close door’ button close the door in your story because you pressed it, at least in the eyes of the reader?
Even if it’s not the actual cause, it still has to fit the fallacy. It must make sense at that moment in your story — even if you later reveal another reason.
You can not say “Gary liked apples because they reminded him of Antarctica.”
He must like apples for a reason that makes sense to the reader, at least at first glance.
“Gary liked apples because his mother used to make him delicious PB&T&A sandwiches with apple slices when he was a little Swamp Thing growing up.”
See? Now it makes sense.
But peanut butter and tuna sandwiches always make sense. At least in my own fallacy-full head.
So, next time you’re working on a really important piece, not some word rant running off the merits of cracking your knuckles, take an extra few minutes during the editing process to watch the logic flow.
Does the story follow a ‘This happened → therefore this happened → but this happened → so this happened’ kind of flow?
Or it is a Wikipedia article that Gary wrote about himself in a mechanical ‘This happened → then this happened → then this happened → then this happened → then I got locked out of an elevator by JJ’ stream of boring consciousness?
I hope you can tell by now which one makes for a far better story.
Don’t be a Gary, be logical.
Your writing is the spice of your life — it must flow.
Yes, that was a Dune reference. And yes, I do have a free newsletter. But I know you didn’t ask that. But now you know I have one. Therefore, you’ll sign up anyway. Or at least clap for this article because you love me.
You might also be interested in learning about what is idea sex and how to use it in your writing.