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Monday, January 17, 2022

What is a B Story? 6 Key Qualities of B Stories


A "B Story" is a secondary plotline that unfolds, more or less, alongside the "A Story," the primary plotline. Lately, I've been thinking about B Stories more and wishing there were more resources on them. So I decided to help out by putting together this article on the six key qualities a B Story should have--things I wished I'd understood earlier in my writing journey. 

But first, we need to make our usual pit stop to talk about definitions--because (somewhat ironically) these tend to be a little ambiguous in the writing community.

The A Story is the primary plotline--this definitely includes the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist, which means it's the biggest, most predominant conflict. Many people break down the protagonist's journey into an inner journey and an outer journey. While I consider these two different types of plotlines, they usually weave together to make up what many consider the A Story. This means that typically the A Story is made up of the biggest external conflict and the most intimate internal conflict. 

The B Story is the secondary plotline. Many argue that the B Story must be a relationship plotline--this is almost always between the protagonist and the Influence Character. I personally feel it doesn't have to be. It's simply the secondary plot. But if it isn't a relationship plotline, there will still usually be a relationship plotline somewhere in the narrative arc.

These arguments for whether or not the B Story must be the relationship plotline may be more about how writers slice and dice stories and define their elements. It may be more of a matter of perspective, than anything.

Sometimes the term "B Plot" is used instead of "B Story."

So what makes a B Story work? Here are some qualities to keep in mind (while also acknowledging, there is always room for exceptions).


1. The B Story Adds Dimension to the Narrative

When we talk about dimension in life, we are usually talking about three dimensions: height, width, and depth. We aren't talking about height, height, and width. Or width, width, and depth. We are talking about at least three different measurements. Until there are at least three, the object is only two dimensional (aka, flat).

The A Story usually includes two types of plotlines: the external journey and internal journey. 

The B Story often adds dimension to the narrative by offering another plotline. 

The reason the relationship plotline works so well, is because it fits between the protagonist's external and internal plotlines. It's not as extreme and far-reaching as the external plotline, but it's not as intimate and deep as the internal plotline. Therefore it adds dimension.

While I don't think the B Story always needs to be a relationship, it typically needs to be something that is not as big and broad as the protagonist's external journey, and not as personal and deep as the internal journey. I think that is a more accurate understanding of it. 

For example, the A Story could be about the protagonist fighting in a war and how that changes him. The B Story could be about two business owners in conflict about how they contribute to the war efforts--not as big as the war story, but not as personal as the character arc.


2. The B Story Feeds into the A Story

The B Story somehow feeds into, and therefore supports, the A Story, and not the other way around. It's also not just extra, separate stuff that detracts or distracts from the A Story. It should be helping the primary plot, more than the primary plot is helping it. This is one of the quicker ways to identify which plotline is the B Story. 

It should ultimately progress the plot, character arc, or theme of the A Story (and sometimes all three). 

Often this will happen like this:

The B Story is a relationship plotline between the protagonist and Influence Character. Usually, they must figure out how to work together to resolve the main conflict. While they are often (though not always) somehow tied together in the overarching conflict, they will have different approaches for how to resolve said conflict. For example, one might feel that striving for peace by negotiating with the antagonist is the best way forward, while the other may feel that bullying and ultimately stamping out the antagonist is the ideal road to take. These different worldviews tap into the thematic argument of the story: Is it better to strive for peace? Or to exercise force?

In this regard, usually one of the characters is having a change arc, while the other is having a steadfast/flat arc. Normally, they start the story with different worldviews and end on the same page, as they learn to work and come together. This typical B Story allows the relationship plotline to progress the plot, the character arcs, and the theme. What happens here usually informs the protagonist what to do at the climax to resolve the main conflict with the antagonist.

Of course, there are plenty of variations to this. One quick example is that it's possible the protagonist has a relationship with a collective--like a team or club. The point is that it supports the A Story. 

So in my earlier example about a war narrative, the B Story may support the A Story by having the business owners send critical contributions to the "good guys." This arms the protagonist with what he needs to defeat the antagonist (plot driven). Or the B Story could support by showing how the business owners overcame their differences as one of them arced, foreshadowing how the protagonist must arc in order to succeed (character-arc driven). Or it could illustrate another facet of the thematic truth, which adds more strength to the theme of the A Story (theme-driven).

If you are looking for something more complex or ironic, you could instead use the B Story to contrast the plot, character arc, and theme of the A Story. You could show how the business owners' conflict creates so much damage, they are no longer able to contribute to the war efforts. You could show how they arc negatively or refuse to arc, and that leads to their failure. You could show how they embrace the anti-theme (the lie) instead of the theme. In any case, it still feeds into the bigger story in that it influences the plot, character arc, or theme of the A Story (or at least the audience's understanding of those elements). 

There are more variations to this than I can list, but hopefully that gets you thinking.


3. The B Story Reflects the A Story

Along those lines, the B Story will usually somehow reflect the A Story. This may be a true, unaltered reflection. Or it may be like that of a funhouse mirror. 

Basically, the B Story will probably be more simplistic, exaggerated, inverted, or contrasting to the A Story. 

For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the A Story centers on Harry dealing with Sirius Black, who he believes betrayed his parents to Voldemort, which led to their murders. However, the climax reveals that Black is actually innocent.

The B Story reflects and simplifies this, in that Hagrid's pet Hippogriff, Buckbeak is being accused of being dangerous, and is sentenced to death (just like Sirius Black). Harry is only able to save Sirius from death by first saving the innocent Hippogriff.

One may even extend this to the C Story: Ron repeatedly accuses Hermione's cat of trying to kill his rat, Scabbers. But when Scabbers "dies," it turns out the cat had nothing to do with it. Scabbers only pretended to die to escape (a reflection of Pettigrew's role in Sirius's backstory).

In my hypothetical war narrative, I may write the business owners' conflicts to reflect the overall war conflict the protagonist is dealing with. How they resolve their conflicts may be the same way the war is resolved. Or, I may use the B Story to show what happens when the conflicts don't get properly resolved. I may use the plotline to emphasize similarities and differences between people "warring" on a personal level and people warring with other nations. It all depends on the effect I want and the narrative I want to tell.

Regardless, the B Story must still be ultimately secondary to the A Story--the reflection shouldn't be more amazing than the real thing (an innocent Hippogriff being sentenced to death, isn't as big of a deal as an innocent human being sentenced to death).


4. The B Story Gets Less "Screen time" (Attention)

Because the A Story is the primary plot, all of its major turning points should happen "on screen" or "on page." If something gets skipped, the story feels off. 

The A Story starts right with the inciting incident and goes all the way to the resolution. 

The A Story gets the lion's share of the word count.

The B Story doesn't always need all of its major turning points on the page. You can include all the turning points, but sometimes it's okay if elements happen "off page." It doesn't get as much of the word count, so you may need to refer to off-page scenes. This can be helpful to implement if you feel that your B Story is starting to overtake your A Story. But you need to use common sense and good judgment.

The B Story often starts later than the A Story. In Save the Cat! Blake Snyder flags the B Story as taking shape at the beginning of Act II (the middle). This is often where the protagonist meets the character she will have an important relationship with (usually the Influence Character). However, it's possible the relationship is introduced in Act I, but simply takes a (deeper, more intimate) significant turn at the beginning of Act II. In any case, you have more leeway with where you want to introduce the B Story. 

You also have more leeway with where you end it. Because it feeds into the A Story, often the B Story gets resolved at the beginning of Act III, just before the climax. But it doesn't have to. Sometimes the climax will enable the character(s) to resolve the B Story in the denouement. However, it's almost always that the unresolved B Story conflict leads to insight of solving the A Story conflict at the climax. So even if the B Story technically gets resolved after, it's still the B Story feeding the A Story. (If that makes sense.)

Even if your B Story isn't a relationship, you still have leeway in where you place its beginning and end. Pick what works best for your story.


5. The B Story Follows a Plot & Story Structure

As the Write On Sisters point out, random comic relief or smoldering romance scenes don't make a B Story. The B Story still needs to be a B Story. It needs to have the proper elements of plot: goal, stakes, antagonist, and conflict. And the proper elements of structure: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. 

So if the B Story is about a relationship, there needs to be a reason the relationship isn't smooth sailing. Something is threatening it--whether that comes from an outside force, the relationship character, or inside the viewpoint character himself. Or, from multiple places at once. There needs to be conflict. And just like the A Story, the stakes need to get big enough to make it seem the relationship can't continue. Often at the "All is Lost" beat of the B Story, the relationship will seemingly end: Maui leaves Moana, Eliza burns Hamilton's letters, Scott Calvin is told he can no longer see his son (The Santa Clause).

If the B Story isn't a relationship, these things still hold true. It's simply a plotline that is "lesser" than the primary plot. But it's still a plotline.


6. The B Story Tells the Theme, the A Story Shows it (Sorta)

Okay, don't get too excited about the subheading just yet. It's more of a half-truth. In reality, both the A Story and B Story should probably show the theme more than tell it. And there is a good chance both will tell it by the end of the narrative, at least a little (though not always). 

Some in the writing community say that the B Story is the theme, because it often tells the theme right on the page (or screen). While I respect that, I personally disagree.

It's not so much that the B Story is the theme. It's just that because it is a mirrored version of the A Story and often includes a relationship (of characters who have different thematic worldviews), the theme often gets explored in more obvious ways. What's harder to wrap your head around? A war between two nations? Or a feud between two business owners? The two business owners are easier to understand. Their differences are more obvious because they are closer together, interact with one another, speak to each other. It's easier for them to work together to solve their problems. 

Naturally, an argument between using peace or using force will be more accessible when we are following a relationship where the characters are arguing about which to use to move forward. We get to see each approach applied to the "real world" in more understandable, bite-sized pieces.

This is also often more obvious than in the internal journey. Being in conflict with yourself isn't as clear cut as being in conflict with another person. Internal conflict is complicated, and we are usually blind to our own flaws and misbeliefs. We lie to ourselves.

When two people, or two small groups of people, are in conflict, the thematic differences are more obvious, which means the theme is more obvious.

Meaning, the B Story will be more likely to tell the theme more blatantly by its end. 

In contrast, if the A Story tells the theme as blatantly, it can potentially seem to oversimplify or undercut the complexity of the internal and external journeys. (This doesn't always happen, but it is a possibility.) 

In the balance between showing and telling, the A Story requires a greater percentage be shown than told, than the B Story requires the same. (Meaning, ultimately, both should show more than tell the theme, but the B Story can often get away with more telling--it offers more room to tell.)

It's also possible, as we touched on above, to use the B Story to show another side, angle, or outcome of the theme. This might would be the example of having the thematic outcome of the business owners' conflict be the opposite of the thematic outcome of the A Story conflict.

In any case, the B Story lends more thematic power, understanding, refining, or complexity to the A Story. 

Like anything, there will be exceptions in some stories when it comes to what I listed, but those are just that: exceptions.


More Articles on B Stories:

B Stories by Erik Bork

Adding a "B Plot" is the Simple Way to Improve Your Story by Standout Books

What a B Story is and Why that Love Triangle Doesn't Cut it by Write On Sisters


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