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Monday, May 18, 2020

"No, and" vs. "Yes, but": Consequences and Tension

Previously, I talked about how stories work off cause and effect, or in other words, consequences. Every protagonist wants something and is dealing with a potential conflict. As they make choices related to these things, there are (usually) two main outcomes: They fail in that choice or they succeed in that choice. But to capitalize on those outcomes (a.k.a., consequences), it's often helpful to have them lead to new problems that need to be addressed.

Some people in the industry refer to these ideas as "No, and" or "Yes, but." In related to cause and effect, these phrases can mean these things:

Cause and Effect: "No, and"

"No, and" is when the character fails at whatever they are pursuing, which results in more bad consequences and problems.

So maybe your character's goal is to take Katie to the dance happening in a few weeks. He devises a plan on how to ask her, and when he finally does, she turns him down (failure = "No"). But it doesn't end there, she actually humiliates him in front of their peers, which results in him now having to deal with terrible bullying ("and"). Notice how the "and" adds to the failure with more negative consequences that now need to be addressed. Also notice how it escalates the stakes and conflicts.

This is similar to the phrase "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." It's moving from one difficult situation to a worse one, which can be very effective in a story (and is excellent for pacing).

Cause and Effect: "Yes, but"

The cause and effect "Yes, but" is when the character succeeds at whatever they are pursuing, but it introduces new problems.

So maybe, instead, your character succeeds in asking Katie to the dance; she says yes ("Yes"). But, soon afterward, he learns that his enemy or rival was going to ask her and now has it out for him. The enemy plans on doing whatever it takes to get the protagonist to back out, and he's not afraid to play dirty ("but"). Notice how the "but" adds new problems that now need to be addressed, and again escalates the story.

Even positive outcomes can have negative consequences.

Now, I've heard some writers imply they only really use "No, and" but "Yes, but" can be just as effective and can change up the story. In fact, it's often very interesting, and sometimes more interesting, when a protagonist gets what she wants, and it turns out to be more problematic than expected. So I definitely recommend using both.

When I wrote about the importance of cause and effect, I talked about how instead of asking "What comes next?", we can start asking "Which comes next?" Because we can look at different potential outcomes. "No, and" and "Yes, but" are sort of other ways of saying, "This happens and therefore this happens," which is better and more effective than saying, "This happens and then this happens."

With Tension

Now, this same thing relates to threads of tension, too. In a previous post about undercutting tension, the problems I discussed related to the writer cutting off tension too soon, without having any other threads of it in the story to take its place. The "No, and" and "Yes, but" can help fix this, so there is always some form of tension running through the story.

However, I do feel that the tension "No, and" and "Yes, but" can be a little different, because it doesn't need to relate so closely to cause and effect or what actually happens. (Because tension is the fear or hope of what could happen, not necessarily what does.) In a sense, for every possibility, you can look at "No, and" and "Yes, but" potential outcomes, strengthening threads of tension throughout the story.

This relates to, and can be useful with, setting up stakes.

So mind your "No, and" and "Yes, but"s this week.


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