“Yes, but…” The Cardinal Rule of Drama

I have an friend who is a very talented actor. And one day he explained to me the secret of improv. No matter what happens, you have to respond with “Yes, but.” For example.
“Your hat is on fire.”
“Yes, but I bought it on sale.”
If you just agree with the other person, the tension is dissipated. If you say no, you really have to know where the story goes next. You have to take the ball and run with it for a while, and you reduce the possibility of the other person bailing you out. But “Yes, but…”? “Yes, but…” is magic.
“You’re wife has run off with another man.”
“(Yes, but…) I’ve been trying to be rid of that battleaxe for years.”
The very same thing is what I think of as the cardinal rule of drama. A character can never get what they want. Or if they do, it must turn out to be something very different than what they expected. (be careful what you wish for. Because If they get what they want the story or scene is over.
For example:
Guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. Bartender refuses to serve him because he’s a Sneech with only one star on his belly, and everybody knows this is “Two star on thar’s” town. But our Sneech is thirsty. So he demands a drink. Patrons of the bar try to throw him out. The Sneech beats them down. Sheriff comes in and breaks it up. The Sneech appeals to the Sherriff for justice. The Sheriff tells the Sneech to get out of town. As the Sneech walks out, he defiantly grabs a shot off the bar and downs it.
Replace the Sneech with Danny Glover and you’ve got a wonderful scene from Silverado.
For my writing, I try and extend this rule. Not only can the character never get what they want, but whatever the reader/audience expects to happen can’t happen. Maybe it’s that I’m a masocist and I just like playing tennis with two nets. But that’s another post.

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3 replies on ““Yes, but…” The Cardinal Rule of Drama”

  1. Hey! I just happened across this entry while searching technorati.

    The rule of improv is “Yes, and…” The “and” is necessary for building a reality together. In your example with the hat, the sentence wouldn’t really be changed that much if you substituted “and” for “but”. The “but” implies that you are removing information from the previous sentence, the “and” implies that you are adding information.

  2. “Your hat is on fire”.
    You’re = You are
    You are hat is on fire. It just isn’t that snappy.
    For audio, the audience can’t read, which is a good thing.

    My computer has text to speech. It’s pretty smart. It
    tries to guess nouns, verbs, and so on. I typed in:
    “I live for live music.”
    It got ‘live’ wrong both times.
    Classic.

  3. Okay,

    Stephen, thanks for the proofreading.

    David, I disagree. If the sentence wouldn’t be changed all that much, then why do it. Yes and sounds weird to me in that dialog. In addition, “Yes, but” offers a qualification and redirection. Not removal. Just cause your but is weird doesn’t mean everybody’s is.

    Why not take a moment to savor a more robust definition of the word: http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=but&x=0&y=0

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