In the vast landscape of animated television, few shows have left as indelible a mark as “South Park,” the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Beyond its irreverent humor and satirical take on contemporary issues, what sets South Park apart is the unique writing techniques employed by its creators. One of these is that, rather than relying on a linear “and then” narrative structure, Parker and Stone have mastered the art of crafting compelling stories by embracing the power of “but” and “therefore.”
The Pitfalls of “And Then” Narratives:
Traditional storytelling often follows a simple “and then” formula, where events unfold sequentially, one after another. While this structure can be effective in some cases, it often leads to a predictable and monotonous narrative. The “and then” approach lacks the dynamic tension and conflict that make stories engaging, and it can result in a series of unrelated events that fail to captivate the audience.
Enter “But” and “Therefore”:
Parker and Stone recognized the limitations of the “and then” narrative and deliberately chose to adopt a more nuanced approach. Their storytelling hinges on the use of “but” and “therefore” to connect plot points and propel the narrative forward.
- Introducing Conflict with “But”:
In the South Park universe, conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling. Instead of allowing events to unfold seamlessly, the creators introduce a twist or complication using the word “but.” This introduces conflict, challenges the characters, and keeps the audience invested in the story.
For example, if the initial premise is that the characters are planning a school talent show, the introduction of a conflict might be: “The kids want to organize a talent show, but the school principal bans all forms of music and dancing on school grounds.”
This “but” moment transforms a simple setup into a complex situation, adding layers of humor and intrigue.
- Connecting Events with “Therefore”:
The power of “therefore” lies in its ability to link events causally. Rather than presenting a series of unrelated incidents, Parker and Stone use “therefore” to show that each action has consequences. This creates a sense of continuity and coherence in the narrative.
Following the previous example, after the principal bans music and dancing, the story could progress with: “Therefore, the kids decide to organize an underground talent show at a secret location.”
The “therefore” connection ensures that the story evolves organically, with each development being a direct result of the preceding events. This approach makes the plot feel purposeful and drives the story forward with momentum.
Case Studies: Classic South Park Episodes
- “Scott Tenorman Must Die”:
In this iconic episode, Cartman is tricked and humiliated by an older boy, Scott Tenorman. Rather than resorting to a simple revenge plot, Parker and Stone employ the “but” and “therefore” technique to elevate the narrative.
- But: Cartman discovers that his revenge plan failed, and Scott outsmarts him at every turn.
- Therefore: Cartman’s humiliation intensifies, leading him to concoct an even more elaborate and shocking revenge plot.
The constant escalation of events, driven by “but” and “therefore,” results in a darkly comedic and unpredictable story that has become a fan favorite.
- “Make Love, Not Warcraft”:
This episode explores the world of online gaming and satirizes the obsession with video games. The narrative is driven by the characters’ quest to defeat an unbeatable player.
- But: The boys realize that the player they’re up against is not only unbeatable but also has an absurd amount of playtime.
- Therefore: In an effort to defeat him, the boys embark on an epic and hilarious journey, sacrificing sleep and social lives.
The constant challenges presented by the “but” moments force the characters to adapt and evolve, creating a story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Rhythm Between “But” and “Therefore”:
The South Park creators don’t suggest this, nor does anyone else I’ve read talking about this technique, but it feels to me that there’s an implicit rhythm between the two ways to move the story forward. A story naturally swings between these: “but”, “therefore”, “but”, “therefore”. It doesn’t necessarily need to have one follow the other, but if you’ve had two “buts” or two “therefores” in a row, it’s worth considering switching to the other.
When they’re talking about it in the above video, they even articulate it this way, as swinging between the two. This feels somewhat connected to the scene-sequel writing pattern.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s writing technique in South Park is a masterclass in storytelling innovation. By consciously avoiding the linear “and then” structure and embracing the dynamic interplay of “but” and “therefore,” they have crafted a show that remains fresh, relevant, and immensely entertaining. This approach not only adds depth to the humor but also creates narratives that are unpredictable and engaging. Aspiring storytellers can learn a valuable lesson from the South Park creators: the power of conflict, consequence, and causality lies in the simple conjunctions “but” and “therefore.”