The Tells of Fiat News

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I was reminded of an old video this week (h/t author Robert Kroese) featuring two of the most creative people in America: Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They are, uh, pictured on the left and right above, respectively. The creators of South Park and Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone are famously irreverent, productive and capable of creating surprisingly incisive social commentary on 2-3 days’ notice. They have a lot to say about storytelling. At an NYU writing seminar back in 2014, they said a lot.

You can watch the video clip here, but a transcript of the key bit is below:

Trey Parker: Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want one scene that’s just like, what was the point of that scene? We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.

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 f***ed. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no! It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’

Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.

We’ll have our beats, and we’ll say, ‘okay this happens, but then this happens’ and that effects this and that does to that, and that’s why you get a show that feels like this to that and this to that but this, here’s the complication, to that.

And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see …

Matt Stone: F*** that. I see movies, f*** man, you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens — that’s when you’re in a movie and you’re going what the f*** am I watching this movie for?. It’s just like: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a movie. That’s not a story. Like Trey says it’s those two, ‘but’, ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.

This is among the more concise, actionable advice I’ve seen about storytelling and writing, fields which tend to attract uselessly impractical or vague recommendations. But it is also a perfect illustration of how news is transformed into fiat news. News is and ought to be exactly the thing which Parker bemoans – a series of linked ‘and then’ statements. Holding multiple truths in our heads (#AND) in this way is powerful. It is also boring.

But more often than not, too many journalists, so many of whom entered the industry out of a desire to ‘change the world’, now approach a topic having already decided the ‘beat’ toward which they must steer the story. Ideas, principles and conclusions they consider self-evident, powerful or provocative. Important. Instead of descriptions of what took place, stories are connected with ‘but’, ‘because’ and ‘therefore.’

These are the mechanics of effective storytelling. These are the tells of Fiat News.

When you open news, get in the habit of searching for ‘because’, ‘but’, ‘therefore’ and ‘however.’ Search for ‘nonetheless’ and ‘as a result.’ More often than not, it will give you a sense of the underlying intent of the author outside of the facts being presented. 

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Mark Kahn
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Mark Kahn

Maybe my memory is broken, but as a kid / young adult (in the ’70s/’80s, I’m not Methuselah), I don’t remember all these “news analysis,” or “insight” pieces co-existing on the news pages as they do now. When done with integrity and honestly, they can provide more context, background and perspectives to all the “and then” reporting that should be on the news pages, but instead, they have become little more than editorials – story telling (all “but,” “therefore,” “because”) with a bias trying to masquerade as impartial analysis – on the news pages.

Separate thought: many well-written books and movies open with several disparate parts (all “and thens”) that build suspense and, sometimes, engaging confusing before bringing those pieces together later in a satisfying “oh, that’s how it all ties together” way. It’s a different model of story telling, but one that can be quiet effective – not in a short story or 22 minute sitcom, though.

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