No, but…

“Yes, and…” is simple in both concept and execution.  Simply agreeing, however, is poor form as it forces your partner to do all the work (a slight we call “pimping” in the improv world).  Flat denial, however, can bring the scene to a dead stop.  This is arguably a worse form of pimping as it takes a great deal of work to reestablish the scene’s momentum.  Developing this habit as a performer is a good way to ensure you won’t be invited out to play again.  For authors, it provides the audience an opportunity to put the book down, possibly for good.

Where “Yes, and…” is about agreement and addition, “No, but…” is about acknowledgement and redirection.  Used sparingly and well, “No, but…” is effective.  As an example, during the last show I played in, I was given the character of “Father John” by a fellow performer.  As the local fence, Father John was a focal contact for the character of the player gifting me the identity.  Easily being able to work with that, I subtly “yes, and…ed” the gift and moved on with the show.

In the final scene, the detective character confronted Father John about cooking hallucinogens in the chapel, to which I confessed.  However, when he fed me the line “What’s going on?  Are you growing pot under the alter too?” it was time for the “No, but…”

“Of course not!” I said, pausing for his reaction and a chuckle from the audience.  Into that moment of silence, I continued, “The pot’s out behind the rectory.”  We had to pause for a much longer time for the subsequent laugh to die down.

The first step in the joke was to use a soft reject, “Of course not!” instead of a harder, “No.”  Next, I redirected one of the details, the location of the stash, in such a way that I acknowledged the accusation of wrong-doing.  Had I left the exchange at, “Of course not!” all I would have garnered from the audience was a chuckle.

Failure develops character, promotes reader sympathy, builds tension and helps with plotting and pacing.  Authors must be very comfortable denying our characters easy success.  However, we should always provide a “but…” somewhere in the story.  If a protagonist learns something from the failure, then character has been developed.  Prove a character’s willingness try again regardless of failure will encourage the audience to love them.  Easy, morally unobjectable paths are significantly less interesting than dark, difficult ones.  This is especially true when a protagonist is forced from the former to the latter by failure.  Finally, many plotting structures, such as try-fail cycles or the three act structure, require the protagonist’s situation to get worse before it can get better.  Failure, then, can be a plot marker to work towards and launch off of, rather than a point at which the story comes to a stop.


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