In it, Zhou marvels at the Orson Welles film F for Fake. It’s ostensibly a documentary about an art forger, but Welles (best known as the director of Citizen Kane) eventually builds out the film into more of a freeform essay on the nature of trickery, the impossibility of objective truth, and art’s role as a sort of truth built atop a foundation of falsehoods. As Zhou points out, at the film’s high point, Welles is cutting between six different stories. It’s impressive.
Get rid of “and then”
What Zhou notices is that Welles’s internal editing of the piece doesn’t use the thought “and then” to structure his ideas. Welles understood intuitively — and Zhou has learned from him — that “and then” is deadly to storytelling.
Think of a child recounting the plot of her favorite story to you. Usually, it’s a string of events, connected by those words “and then” over and over again. That’s because as kids, we understand narrative mostly as a series of events that happen, without grasping the connective tissue.
As we grow up into adolescents and adults, however, we come to realize that narratives are actually constructed off of three different words: but, therefore, and meanwhile (which Zhou describes as “meanwhile, back at the ranch”).
Here’s how each of these words works in storytelling.
But: This introduces the idea of opposition. The hero has done something, but the villain has done something to oppose it.
Therefore: This introduces the idea of progression. The hero has done something, and therefore the world adjusts to her actions (usually with some new struggle the hero must overcome).
Meanwhile: This introduces the idea of parallelism, of two things happening at the same time, so we can always cut to something else. The hero is saving the world. Meanwhile, her friend is off dealing with the fallout.
These aren’t just good words for fiction writers; they’re good concepts for all writers to keep in mind.
Learning from F for Fake
Zhou points out that F for Fake isn’t a film about a story, not really. It’s a film about ideas. Yes, it contains several stories within it, but none of them are the overall point of what Welles is trying to say.
Instead, Welles is stitching together his ideas by juxtaposing them. Some ideas are opposed by others (but). Thoughts lead logically to other ones (therefore). And Welles develops six parallel stories that give him plenty of places to cut to, all the better to keep building tension (meanwhile).
The trick to interesting writing is to understand that people are always looking for these three things — opposition, progression, and parallelism. If you’re finding that your writing is stuck in a rut of “and then,” try breaking out some other conjunctions.