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And then...

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

These are the two words that you never want to hear yourself say.

And then.

Have you ever listened to a small child tell a story? Let's be honest here - they aren't great. They're boring. It's not the child's fault, they just haven't learnt how to be interesting yet.

Their stories always have the same two words linking every stray thought: and then.

"We went to the beach. And then we went to the park. And then we went to the shops. And then we went to McDonalds."

And then and then and then and then.

This is fine for children because nobody really expects them to be good storytellers, but your audience won't be as forgiving.

"All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring" Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters.

So what you need to do is go through your story/speech/interpretive dance and plot out the beat points. Then, if the words "and then" appear in any of your segues, you need to get rid of them.

What should you use instead? "But" and "therefore".

These words are a simple way of adding drama, conflict and tension to your story, which is what all good narrative is built on. (Drama, conflict and tension, in this sense, are all the same thing.)

They instantly add spice to your performance - they're dynamic elements. Things are in motion, things are changing, stuff is going down.

Let's take a look at that story again, but with our new rules in play:

"We went to the beach. But (what's wrong?) the beach was closed because of Dracula. So (it doesn't have to be therefore, it's a clunky word, I was using it for illustrative purposes, just something showing cause and effect) we had to go to the park instead. But the park was full of dinosaur ninjas! So we went to the shops, to buy anti-ninja weapons. And then we went to McDonald's. (The exception that proves the rule, sometimes it's good to settle things down again.)"

Now, this is a pretty extreme example. I'm telling outright lies here. There was never a Dracula situation. But I think it illustrates the point of what separates an interesting story from a boring one, at all levels.

"But" is a complication. There is some sense of tension and uncertainty which your audience will pick up on, even subconsciously. Their monkey brains are attuned to look for this structure and reward themselves for finding it. Even a small amount of dramatic tension is going to boost your performance significantly and make it stand out from the pack.

Think of "if you refer to chart 3.7 you will see that sales figures rose 14% in the last quarter" vs "there was some initial skepticism over policy direction, but an increase of 14%, as shown in 3.7, validates our strategy." It's the same information, but an artificial sense of dramatic tension makes one method demonstrably more engaging.

"Therefore" is a display of cause and effect. The monkey brain loves a narrative. We're scientifically hardwired to crave causation - this happened because this happened (known as propter hoc fallacy).

"This sales increase is a welcome trend, therefore it's my opinion we continue with our policies intact".

Because thing X happened, we should do thing Y. X leads directly to Y, nothing happened by chance or chaos, monkey brain is happy.

This simple tweak to your style will pay immediate dividends. You'll instantly become more interesting, more engaging and more authoritative.

Here's what a couple of bigger guns than I had to say on the subject:

"But, we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words 'and then' belong between those beats, you're #&%$, basically... you got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you've written down, is either the word 'therefore', or 'but.' Right? So what I'm saying is that you come up with an idea, it's like 'OK, this happens... and then, this happens...' no, it should be 'this happens... and therefore, this happens... but, this happens, and therefore this happens.' You see movies and you're just watching and it's like 'this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens...' and that's when you're in the movie just going 'what the #&%^ am I watching this movie for?' and you're just like 'this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...' you know? That's not a movie, that's not a story. Like Trey said, it's those 'but,' 'because,' 'therefore,' that gives you the causation between each beat that makes...that's a story." - Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) talking story construction.

"Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot 'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence... But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design." - Aristotle, Poetics

Between Aristotle and South Park, I think they know what's what.

- Damo