"That's Called a Montage": Five More Things Fiction Writers Can Take from South Park

Sara C Rolater

May 01, 2013

[As our story continues...on the last episode of "That's Called a Montage": "I've attempted to render something productive from the hours (ahem, years) I have dedicated to a not-so-sleepy little Colorado town--one that is, in fact, quite animated. The ways we deploy the following tricks in our fiction may be a bit more understated, but don't have to be. One advantage fiction and animation share is that they don't impose a budget on special effects: anything can happen."] 6. Push the limits of perverted logic. If the engine of drama is an escalating pattern of action and emotional response, South Park's plots expose that our lives are often dictated by our irrational innermost desires, our inability to see outside the sphere of ourselves. Many episodes originate with Cartman's (hilariously random) base desires and self-absorption; in "Go God Go" he wants a soon-to-be-released Nintendo Wii so badly that he freezes himself to avoid the wait and winds up five centuries in the future; in "Casa Bonita" his desire to go to a Mexican restaurant leads him to trick Butters into hiding in a bomb shelter for days:
We are our own worst enemy, and what we want is most often not what is good for us. In South Park the consequences of stupidity and shortsightedness manifest in hilarious paradoxes. Spittle flies from the mouth of the German-accented Tolerance Camp counselor as he screams that intolerance will not be tolerated. 7. Juxtaposition is a powerful tool (usually to highlight hypocrisy). In "Medicinal Fried Chicken" Randy is elated to be able to buy marijuana legally at a dispensary (after giving himself testicular cancer to be able to do so; see #6), while Cartman is incensed that fast food has been made illegal in impoverished areas. In another episode, after leading the boys on a tour through the Museum of Tolerance, the parents volubly berate a cigarette-smoker (see #4). 8. Literalize your metaphors. Parker and Stone often resort to this trick to generate and/or resolve plot, and to underscore perverted logic (see #6). In "Goobacks," the controversy over the immigration of illegal "aliens" manifests in a plot in which "a hairless, uniform mix of all races" come to town from a poverty-stricken future in search of jobs. In "Raising the Bar," James Cameron embarks on an undersea voyage to raise the bar his crew tries to explain to him is a metaphor, but then does turn out to be real.
In "Tonsil Trouble," money becomes the cure for everything when the boys discover that injecting liquid cash cures HIV. In "It Hits the Fan," censorship of the word "shit" leads to a mass epidemic of people spewing their intestines out of their mouths. And in "HumancentiPad," Cartman repeatedly yells at his mother that she is "fucking" him by not getting him an iPad (see #1), a claim that eventually lands him on a child-molestation episode of Dr. Phil. There's also the government chicken with its head cut off (see #4). 9. Everything that rises must converge. The writers often have a good portion of the episode up and animated before they know how it will end. To get there, they ask how the disparate plot strands already in play can come together. At the end of "HumancentiPad," Dr. Phil gives Cartman, as his molestation-consolation prize, the first HumancentiPad--the development of which has been the episode's other main (and up to then relatively separate) thread. 10. Don't underestimate the value of deadlines. "That's the reason so many episodes are able to get done," Matt Parker explains on the documentary Six Days to Air, which tracks the making of a South Park episode. In the past few seasons, the organic schedule that has arisen (in conjunction with evolving technology) is that each episode is written and produced in the week before it airs. He admits:
There just is a deadline and you can't keep going. Because there would be so many shows where I'd be like no it's not ready yet, it's not ready yet, and I would have spent four weeks on one show. All you do is start second-guessing yourself and rewriting stuff and it gets overthought, and it would have just beenĀ½five percent better.