“A” Story and “B” Story

 

In the movie biz there’s a terminology: “A” Story and “B” Story. (There’s also a “C,” “D,” and “E” story.)

This is an interesting concept that has carry-overs for us in the fiction world. Nonfiction too.

Matt Damon and Franka Potente enact the “B” Story in “The Bourne Identity”

The “A” story is the main story, the story in the foreground.

In Moby Dick the “A” story is Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. In The Bourne Identity, it’s Jason Bourne’s search for who he really is. In To Kill a Mockingbird it’s Atticus Finch’s endeavor to save Tom Robinson.

The “B” story is the secondary story, the story in the background.

In many dramas, the “B” story is the love story.

In The Bourne Identity for example, the “B” story is the romance that develops between Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) as Bourne flees from the bad guys and pursues his quest to find his lost identity.

The “B” story, when it’s a love story, doesn’t have to be between literal lovers. It can be between friends or family members. It can be between a child and a dog, an elf and a human. It can be between Hobbits.

In Moby Dick, the love story is between Ishmael and Queequeg the harpooneer. Remember Chapter Three at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, where Ishmael is compelled by the scarcity of beds to share a (chaste) bunk with Queequeg? In the final scene of the saga, after Moby Dick has attacked and sunk the Pequod, Ishmael alone survives, using as a life raft the watertight coffin that Queequeg had had made for himself by the ship’s carpenter when he had a premonition of his coming death

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the “B” love story is between Scout (or, we might say, Scout and Jem together) and Boo Radley. Again, this is not a literal love story but a tale of the heart just the same.

Blake Snyder in his indispensable book on screenwriting, Save the Cat!, declares that the “B” story often rides to the rescue of the “A” story.

This happens at the start of Act Three, when “A” and “B” story merge in what I call the Epiphanal Moment. (More on this later.)

For sure, the “B” story resonates with and often completes the “A” story.

In The Imitation Game, the “B” story is between Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), both mathematicians working to crack the German “Enigma” code for the Brits during WWII. In the climax, when Turing is destroyed physically and emotionally by his own homophobic and spectacularly ingrateful government, it is Joan’s love for and dedication to his memory that saves the tale and completes it.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”

One of the tests I apply to my own stories is to ask of myself, as I’m working:

 

What is the “A” story?

What’s the “B” story?

Do they resonate with one another? Are they both on-theme?

Does the “B” story complete or save or resolve the “A” story?

 

And this crucual question:

 

Do I even have a “B” story?

 

The amazing thing, I’ve discovered, is that a “B” story seems to arise all by itself without me even thinking about it.

Maybe the overall narrative simply cries out for it and I find myself supplying it without any planning or pre-intention.

It’s an illuminating exercise for all of us, when we read books or watch movies that we consider to be truly working, to ask ourselves, “What’s the ‘A’ story here? What’s the ‘B’ story? How do they interact? How does one enhance the other?”

We’ll continue this investigation next week … and thereafter.

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8 Comments

  1. DeWayne Mason on December 26, 2018 at 8:09 am

    This was quite helpful. I’m putting it to work today as I go about structuring my book. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kristi Garrett on December 26, 2018 at 8:54 am

    I’m SO glad to hear you say the “B” love story could be the relationship between two non-lovers. I’ve struggled with that one. And I like the terminology “B”, “C”, “D” story rather than “subplots”, because it assigns them a hierarchy.
    BTW—I’m loving my JABs. I easily spotted the theme in the new Jennifer Lopez movie “Second Act,” and watched for the on-theme climax. Good movie, but mis-marketed as a romantic comedy.

  3. Joe Jansen on December 26, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    Makes me think of music, how two or three different notes coming together (gotta be in harmony) to form a chord. Look forward to the next thoughts on this topic.

  4. Madalena on December 26, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    I love this blog, and also hate it at times.
    Because of these posts I can’t watch a bloody movie or read a book without analyzing the story line, or notice the protagonists resistance to call of action, or absorb myself in the characters.

    But on the plus side…it gets the little rabbits in my head working overtime.

  5. Veleka on December 28, 2018 at 3:37 am

    Steven, in “Downton Abbey”, there are so many stories. Does one classify them just as “C,” “D,” and “E”? Are the B stories prioritized as more important than C stories?

    • Jim on January 14, 2019 at 1:15 pm

      Veleka, I’m not Steven but if you don’t object, let me offer you my opinion. As a big fan of Downton Abbey, I think that the many sub stories all support the main story that wealth and privilege are not as lasting as love, especially in times of national hardship such as wartime. No one was immune from tragic loss, but even the most humble servants still experienced love; it is not reserved only for the wealthy. I don’t know if that makes them B stories or C stories, but to me it doesn’t matter as much as the common theme. Interested to hear your and others’ thoughts.

  6. Rhonda on December 28, 2018 at 8:32 am

    I am reading this post as my kids are watching Pixar’s Cars for the 734,235th time. As I read, it occurred to me that, in Cars, the love story isn’t the real love story (the “B” plot). There’s a romantic relationship between McQueen and Sally, but the “B” plot that drives the “A” is the growing relationship between McQueen and Doc Hudson. In fact, the McQueen-Sally plot line is almost superfluous.

    Thank you for giving me something to think about while my kids spend their holiday vacation vegging out on the couch and bickering with each other. 🙂

    • Rhonda on December 28, 2018 at 8:36 am

      In fact, I wonder if the McQueen-Sally plot line amounts to Shawn Coyne’s “shoe leather” – something to be cut… though Sally does move the story along in small ways…

      … which would bring us to considering the importance of minor characters. Perhaps you’ll be getting around to this with “C”, “D”, and so on.

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