One of the first things you learn as a child is your ABC’s. This is because language is the foundation upon which we build communities, it’s how we tell stories, and it’s why you can articulate that you want to be a screenwriter. When writing scripts, it is essential to write clear A-stories, B-stories, and C-stories to move along the plot. Each one services the other, until they form braid together in a less technical, more nuanced way.
Story is much larger than the plot. Story is all of the subsystems of the story body working together: premise, character, moral argument, world, symbol, plot, scene, and dialogue. Story is a ‘many-faceted complex form and meaning in which the line of narrative [plot] is only one amongst many aspects.’ Plot is the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily from the beginning through the middle to the end. More particularly, plot tracks the intricate dance between the hero and all of his opponents as they fight for the same goal. It is combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.
– John Truby, Screenwriter
Clearly understanding and differentiating your A-stories, B-stories, and C-stories should be as foundational and clear as the alphabet. Defining your ABC’s in your scripts will help you clarify the characters’ importance in your story and to each other, their goals, and the feeling you are trying to convey.
The A-story is what most of your writing will be about. It’s the meat of your story. It’s where your protagonist lives, where they chase their goals, and where obstacles try to get in the way of what they want.
The B-story is often about your secondary character, not the protagonist. It’s a chance to not burn out on your A-story, to learn more about your protagonists from someone else, to allow your audience to explore the rest of your world, and build upon the thematic messages in your A-story.
C-stories have many definitions, but they are largely the runners of the season of television or slow-build plot points in your feature. In comedy, they are referred to as comedic runners, or a running joke that can change forms but garner the same laugh. When you think of the American show, The Office, you might envision a jello-covered stapler, or one of their favorite C-story elements: pranks.
Steve Carell in The Office
The Office is a great show to look closely at because of its clear A, B, and C-stories and similar structure episode to episode. The Office’s A-stories are often about some aspect of the Americana of blue-collar office work — diversity trainings, office holiday parties, take your kid to work day, etc. Their B-stories are often the love-interest story — Jim and Pam flirting, Dwight and Angela coupling, and Michael and Holly being silly. Their C-stories are reserved mainly for office gags or runners — staplers in jello, memos to Dwight from himself in the future, and hiding Andy’s cell-phone in the office ceiling. But let’s get more specific. Season 1, Episode 2’s “Diversity Day” is a great example of clear A, B, and C-stories.
The A-story of this episode is the racial sensitivity training that the workers at Dunder Mifflin need to attend. It’s where we are in most of the episode to teach Michael that his impressions of Chris Rock are racist, it’s where the office plays the index-card-on-the-forehead game to unlearn stereotypes, and it’s where we learn — rather unsurprisingly — that this training was done specifically to not single out Michael for his problematic behavior.
The B-story of “Diversity Day” would be Jim trying to close his biggest sale of the year amid the chaos of the mandatory seminar. This storyline adds some great conflict to the episode by way of a time constraint, as Jim needs to close his deal by the end of the day. Although he doesn’t make the sale, having this parallel story is necessary for the comedic beats in the A-story to rest.
C-stories have many definitions, but they are largely the comedic runners. However, in this episode, the C-story is more of a grace note. It’s Pam falling asleep on Jim’s arm at the end of the episode, after he finds out Dwight closed his sale instead.
Rainn Wilson and Jenn Fischer in The Office
It should also be stated that there is not always one A, B, and C-story; you might have two or three A-stories if you have an ensemble narrative. An example of this would be This is Us. In the drama, we have Jack and Rebecca’s flashback story, Randall’s story, Kate’s story, and Kevin’s story. These ensemble narratives get tricky, though: with so much plot, so many characters, and so many separate goals, the audience has to be on high alert. This is why dramas tend to skew more A-stories and why comedies have more subplots and B or C stories.
In improv, the funny part of the scene is often vaguely referred to as “the game.” It’s the unusual, patterned behavior repeated in a scene that makes the scene funny. Once the pattern is set, your audience will know what to expect. A huge part of why game, or patterns of characters’ behavior, is so funny is because characters rest game. If Superbad was purely about the two main characters, Seth and Evan, trying to lose their virginity before college, it’d quickly get boring and a bit exhausting. By bringing in McLovin, inept cops, and Seth and Evan’s fears of missing each other at school next year, the game of Seth and Evan wanting to lose their virginity rests to allow for bigger laughs each time that game comes back.
You need to actively rest the game, or the A-Story, for it to pay off. This is where your B and C stories come in: they let your main story breathe. Clear A, B, and C-stories lend to a better script, no matter how complicated your story gets. If you feel jarred when you flip from A-story to B or C story, you might need to connect them more.
Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad
So how do you connect seemingly separate story lines occurring in the same world? A great way to do this is to keep in mind your theme. Thematic ties bridge the plot gap, connect characters with parallel storylines, and provide runners that main characters in the A-story can get mixed up in at the end. This can be done through mirroring a problem your main character is having in the A-story with a character in the B-story.
For example, in the season 3 Gilmore Girls episode “Dear Emily and Richard,” the A-story is Christopher’s girlfriend, Sherry, giving birth their baby while Rory stays with her during the process. Not wanting to be alone at the hospital with her father’s girlfriend, she asks Lorelai to come, too. Lorelai being at the hospital brings up memories of how she gave birth, alone, at 16 to Christopher’s baby. Therein lies the B-story: Lorelai’s parallel experience giving birth as a teenager through the use of flashbacks. Her experience with pregnancy was quite different – less supportive, more “why did you borrow the family car”— and the theme of family, partnership, and most notably, daughters and mothers is used here to connect the two stories.
There are a couple C-stories in “Dear Emily and Richard,” most of them having to do with townies. I’ll focus on the thematically parallel one to the A-story and B-story: Rory’s journey seeing pregnancy at different ages. Part of Lorelai’s flashbacks in the B-story have scenes dedicated to her talking about her backpacking through Europe, getting out of Connecticut, and wanting more for her life than what her parents have. The main C-story in this episode is Rory planning her backpacking trip to Europe after she graduates high school. Unlike her mom, she didn’t get pregnant as a teenager, and unlike Sherri, she wants more than domesticity of Connecticut suburbs. Her parallel C-story in this episode is about what would happen if you don’t get pregnant and actually do get out of Connecticut to travel when you’re young. Not every episode of television will be this clear thematically, but it does make them stronger.
Beyond thematic bridges to connect your story, if your script still is feeling fuzzy, this is when you bust out the index cards. In writers’ rooms I’ve been in, I’ve seen different color index cards indicating the A-story, B-story, and C-stories. While they are not always called the ABC’s so literally, clearly demarcating different through lines is essential in the writing process to keep your story organized for yourself, and even more so, for the reader. This is because if you change one element of the script, you might have to readjust others in a sort of domino effect. By organizing index cards by color on a wall or a cork board, you can get a visual sense of how balanced each story is. If your cards are predominantly indicating scenes for your C-story, you might need to reevaluate if they are necessary runners or if you can weave them into your A-story or B-story – otherwise, you might need to heighten them to at least a B-story or lose them.
We’re Luddites, so we use index cars on corkboard. Each story line-Castle Black, say, or Arya/Hound-gets its own color. At our peak in Season 3 we were up to 12 different colors. Once we’ve mapped out each story line we start putting cards on the board and argue over which scenes should be in which episode and in what order.
– D.B. Weiss and David Bienoff, Showrunners of Game of Thrones
If the index cards don’t work for you or if you don’t have wall or corkboard space, I like to rewrite a beat sheet with the big emotional story moments and an (A), (B), or (C) to go along with each moment. If the moment is too isolated or does not move your story forward, that’s something to think about. Each thread should move the story forward – if it doesn’t, and you can’t make it connect, lose it. It’s just filler.
Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Having clearly defined A, B, and C stories allow you to focus on bigger ideas, like your theme, your message, and the feeling you want your audience to take away. Think of it as a small extra step of pre-planning in your outlining phase that will save you a lot of time in the long-run. The best episodes of television and best films utilize thematic ties to make every scene feel intentional, necessary, and hopefully, memorable.