#130) The ABT/Narrative Fingerprint of the United States

Southerners tell stories, northerners are more informational/intellectualMaybe.  More than a billion tweets suggest this.





One of the best payoffs from the presentation Jayde Lovell and I gave at SXSW Interactive was the vigorous discussions that popped up on Twitter.  In the middle of one of them we got a big treat which you can see above.

Jack Grieve is a “forensic linguist” at Ashton University in the U.K.  He joined our discussion and mentioned this amazing study he was part of.  It’s called The Great American Word Mapper, where they analyzed over a billion tweets in the United States.

On Monday this week we had him connect through Skype to our Story Circles Narrative Training Demo Day with USGS folks in Minneapolis.  He told us more detail about the study.   It turns out every time you tweet, there are geographic coordinates recorded.  That’s what they used to produce this amazing regional resource.

We were discussing my Narrative Index (BUT/AND x 100).  He sent us the above plots for BUT versus AND.  Which is incredibly fascinating.  And exactly what I would predict.



Long, long ago, when I was still a professor at UNH, I heard a talk from the Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.  He made the case that the south is THE voice of American culture.  He based this on a number of aspects, such as the only truly original art form the U.S. has given the world is jazz music, and the largest number of great novelists and playwrights have come from the south.   He also pointed out there are no other centers for the study of culture for other parts of the country. 

Having grown up in Kansas and spent plenty of time in the south, I definitely know that it is the greatest region for storytelling in the country.  Which means I would expect it to be the region of the greatest ABT activity, and thus … exactly what you see — the greatest use of BUT in tweets.

There’s lots of other reasons for this pattern you could suggest.  He felt it was strongly correlated to African American populations, but … look at Maryland — it has the 4th highest percentage of African American population.  And look at New York versus Arkansas — they have the same percentage.

I think it’s a higher level function.  I would argue the north/south difference in storytelling holds across all ethnicities.  But then what do I know — I’m just making this ABT stuff up as we go along!

#104) “Dunkirk”: Introducing “The Get to the Point Rule”

Dunkirk” is a movie that is excellent (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), popular (made $50 mil opening weekend), and with pretty much flawless, simple narrative structure. In fact, it illustrates what I am hereby and from here on calling “The Get to the Point Rule” for the ABT Template. It is the idea that, “The quicker you can get through the A and the B (set up and problem), the more the audience will let you have all day with the T … provided you’ve set it up right.” Here’s the ABT for “Dunkirk”: The British troops are retreating AND in a month they could all be evacuated safely, BUT the Germans have them surrounded, THEREFORE they only have a few frantic days to escape. That’s it. They go through the A and B in the first minute of the movie. The rest is T, delivered at relentless speed. It’s a great movie.




I’m putting a name on this ABT rule I’ve been saying repeatedly over the past year. I’m calling it The Get to the Point Rule. The rule is, the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we want to hear lots and lots about the T, provided you’ve set it up well.

I saw “Dunkirk,” yesterday, thoroughly enjoyed it, and realized it gets through the A and the B in about the first minute. It starts with a couple of screens of text telling you the set up (the British are retreating) and the problem (the Germans have them surrounded). Within another minute we get the first of many THEREFOREs as the actor we’re following runs out on the beach and sees thousands of soldiers standing in line waiting to be transported back to England — i.e. THEREFORE everyone is stuck trying to escape quickly.

From there it’s basically THEREFORE men are being killed by the enemy, THEREFORE they need to bring in rescue ships as quick as possible, THEREFORE just standing on the beach is life threatening.

And then they start back with a whole series of minor ABTs — BUT there’s German planes strafing them, BUT there’s British planes defending them, BUT the Germans manage to sink a ship next to the pier, THEREFORE other ships will have trouble getting in.

Lots of smaller ABTs as the movie moves along the arc of the over-arching ABT. The central problem is the need to get back to Britain. The solution is the fleet of boats that eventually come over (if you think this is a spoiler you don’t know your basic WWII history — also, you might want to hear from a historian about the creative licenses taken).

It’s a great movie, a total ABT workout from start to finish, and shows how if you provide tight enough ABT structure you really don’t have to have much of any character work. Filmmakers figured this dynamic out over a century ago with the serial queen melodramas like “The Perils of Pauline” which we learned about in film school. The recent and brilliant “Mad Max” was a direct descendent of that genre, as is “Dunkirk.”

Give the masses a tight, fast paced story and they really don’t need much else (including character work and backstory). Do this and you score 92% with Rotten Tomatoes. Such is the eternal magic of story.

103) Democrats, Messaging and Monty Python

“Right, our polls show the public doesn’t want candidates who pay too much attention to the polls. So let’s do a poll to see what they do want.” The Democrats are in such a quagmire. Here’s an article this morning in The Hill that confirms Democrats aren’t gonna win with no message. In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” there are narrative tools that can help with structuring a message, but the problem is they can’t work if there is no message to start with. Everyone should get comfortable with the Republicans for a long road ahead. Narrative is everything. The Democrats, at present, have nothing, aside from “we hate that guy” which polls show isn’t enough.

How the Romans didn’t get voted out of office.

How the Romans didn’t get voted out of office.


It’s official — you aren’t going to get elected through hate alone. Here’s a simple article this morning reporting polls that basically show that the “We Hate That Guy” message is not enough to take over leadership of the nation.

It didn’t work for the last candidate. It won’t work for the next.

You gotta have a positive, constructive message. The ABT can help tremendously once someone knows the message. The Dobzhansky Template can actually find the message. But until the Democrats get more analytical about narrative and realize there’s more to it than just gut feelings, nothing will change. THEREFORE … everyone might as well get comfortable with the behemoth that the Republican party has become.

And in the meanwhile, they need to take to heart this quote from a New York Times editorial on January 17 that still holds true:


#102) Winner of “The Moth” Storytelling Competition Gives Textbook Demonstration of the ABT Dynamic

Listen to this story from last year’s winner of The Moth storytelling competition. It’s a beautiful story that she tells AND I hate to ruin it by suggesting you analyze it (like a bunch of scientists — and keep in mind this is coming from the guy who wrote the book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”), BUT … it really is a textbook example of how the ABT works, THEREFORE …

To HEAR STORY scroll down to button that says 'Listen Now'


Mary Kate Flanagan is from Ireland and is a former student of Frank Daniel, the screenwriting guru who in the 1980’s first pointed out the And, But, Therefore (ABT) dynamic. Last year she won “The Moth” storytelling competition with this perfectly delivered story about her father’s funeral.

If you listen close in the first 1.5 minutes you’ll hear the ABT structure plain as day. She says AND 7 times, she says BUT 6 times, she says SO (the more common equivalent of THEREFORE) 4 times. That’s a LOT of structure. I have developed the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) in the past. A value of 30 for the N.I. is exceptional. Her ratio for that first minute and a half is 86.

These things matter.

Furthermore, if you consider her overall structure, you see she follows the MONOMYTH to a tee. She begins by introducing her theme — that there are 6 strong sisters who together can do anything. The Ordinary World is set up (that the father dies and they’re all set to bury him with the sisters carrying the coffin), BUT THEN the funeral director says they’re not strong enough which takes us into the Special World and off on the journey.

The problem is eventually solved, then notice where she concludes the story — full circle, back to what she said at the start with her THEME (that the parents gave them all they ever needed in the world — six strong sisters).

Not surprisingly she teaches screenwriting and is a member of The Frank Daniel Institute. Kind of helps with the understanding the power of the ABT when you see it so effectively on display like this.

Here’s her very impressive website: http://www.adramaticimprovement.com

#100) The Atlantic demonstrates the ABT

It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere you look. Like this article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. As Aaron Huertas says, it’s like the arrow in the Fedex logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.


I continue to wage war against all the old farts who say “it’s not that simple.” Yes it is.

We’re definitely making progress. We’ve now run or are running 26 Story Circles. Yesterday we had an “ABT Build Session” with about 20 USDA veterans of Story Circles. It was 90 minutes of discussing and editing about 10 ABTs of the participants. It’s a standard aspect of Story Circles training which is both interesting and productive for everyone involved.

And then this morning I open this month’s issue of The Atlantic and there it is, plain as day — the ABT in the form of the little teaser at the start of an article about a psychiatrist written by David Dobbs who obviously has good narrative intuition.

It’s everywhere you find good communication. Yes, it is that simple.