#58) Aaron Sorkin’s “But, Except, Then” (BET) triad: It’s the DHY for the Narratively Intense World of TV

Hollywood instructors are discovering Hegel’s Triad (which underpins the ABT).  It started with Frank Daniel in the 1980’s, moved to the “South Park” guys, and now can be seen in what current screenwriting superstar Aaron Sorkin is teaching.  Sorky’s template is bascially the DHY, geared more towards for advanced writers and advanced audiences who are completely up to speed with the stories he’s telling.

AARON SORKIN TEACHES SCREENWRITING.  “You don’t have an idea until you can use the words ‘but, except, and then’.”   It’s what you’d expect from a sophisticated master — the DHY.



It’s time to talk narrative templates, which all track back to Hegel.  He was the boring philosopher of the 1700’s (seriously, he tends to be the guy philosophy students most dread having to read). He’s the guy who identified “the Hegelian triad” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”

A century ago, students were raised on it.  Then it became uncool.  But I predict a day soon where everyone circles back to realizing that in a world of too much information, the triad is an essential tool.

In “Houston, We Have A Narrative” I identified the narrative ideal as being the ABT structure of And, But, Therefore.  I then laid out The Narrative Spectrum where we end up with AAA when there’s no narrative at work, and DHY when we’re wanting complex/potentially confusing, hyper-narrative content.  The latter is what Aaron Sorkin is preaching in his workshops, which is what you’d expect for the narratively challenging medium of television.


Aaron Sorkin is a Hollywood icon.  He won an Oscar for the screenplay of “The Social Network” and was the creative force behind “The West Wing,” “Newsroom” and lots of other great shows.  Now he is teaching screenwriting.

Above is the trailer for his course.  In the middle of the trailer he brings up a triad of “but, except, then.”  Which is great.  But … it’s a step beyond the iconic ABT structure.  As I have argued in my essay on The Narrative Index, television demands A LOT of narrative content.  It won’t tolerate AAA, and is often comfortable with DHY when it’s part of an on-going show.  This is what Sorkin is teaching.


So let’s talk about his BET template (But, Except, Then).  The first thing he’s doing is skipping the A of the ABT and just starting with the B (But).  You can do this.  You’re basically “cutting to the chase.”  It’s great for short attention span folks and TV audiences who want the start to start right away.  But you do it at the risk of losing much of the audience, which isn’t a risk at all if they have already watched three seasons of your show.

You also lose the chance to set up your story – planting at the start the overall context an understanding of why this is an important story.  If it’s just another episode of a TV show that we already have been following for lots of episodes, then it’s probably a good thing to not waste a bunch of valuable screen time.  But if you’re trying to write a world-changing essay, you probably don’t want to lose the exposition at the start.

Then he moves to the E (Except).  This is the same as Step 4 (“The stakes get raised”) of the Logline Maker that Dorie Barton developed in our book “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.” We established an initial source of tension or conflict with the B, then we add complexity to it with the E.

This means something like, “The father is found lying dead in his back yard and it looks like he shot himself EXCEPT the angle of entry of the bullet appears to have come from next door.”  So basically “the plot thickens.” And then Sorkin wants to thicken it more.

The third element Sorkin wants is a T in the form of “Then” instead of “Therefore” as we find in the ABT.  This means that instead of moving towards “consequence” he’s just wanting more conflict.  So we find the dead body, we realize the shot came from next door, THEN … we find out the next door neighbor just left town. Now we have a complex story to chase after.

All of which means he’s basically wanting a big chunk of DHY. Which is great for engaged, sophisticated audiences.

Sorkin is a brilliant writer AND I would expect nothing less than a bunch of DHY from him, BUT you’re going to lose people if you’re wanting to tell clear, simple narratives to audiences that haven’t been following your show for three seasons, THEREFORE you should stick to the ABT for now, and use it to understand more clearly what Aaron Sorkin is doing at a more advanced level with his BET template.