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Do You Need A B Story?

When I first studied the craft of fiction writing, I was bemused by the term subplot, aka B-story, which is defined as: A plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work or film.

I examined the story I wanted to write and could not come up with a subordinate plot. I was not plotting a past versus present story. I was not following a secondary character's trajectory. I was not braiding two or more story threads together.

I went back and dissected some of my favorite stories and realized the majority were linear, focusing on one main set of characters going about one specific story goal. I set aside the term subplot and spent more time dissecting stories.

Hunger Games is a linear story. 

Agatha Christie mysteries are linear stories.

The Harry Potter books are linear stories.

A linear story starts at point A and winds its way to the end. There can be twists and turns, but you essentially follow the protagonist, perhaps with a few detours to follow secondary characters or the antagonist. There is a central problem with layers of conflict along the way: internal, external, interpersonal, and antagonist. Linear stories are quite satisfying. Your camera stays focused on the main stage. The camera can travel to view secondary characters interacting with each other and the antagonist to create obstacles.

A B-story is a side plot that runs along and intersects the A-story. Your camera moves between two casts and two stages. It should inform and complicate the A-story, otherwise it is a distraction. A satisfying B-story braids two separate threads together: past versus present mystery, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. It should not be confused with consecutive timeline stories that follow generations of a family, etc. Those are a string of A-story pearls.

In the hands of a story master, you could have an A-, B-, and C-story.

You don’t have to have a B story. In fact, it can sometimes interfere with your readers’ enjoyment.

I recently watched a television series called The Bridge. The A-story was a riveting, multiple murder mystery concerning the border between Texas and Mexico. It shined a light on the dark world of border crossing criminal activity. The B-story involved a rancher who owned a tunnel running under the border. The rancher was murdered, which is the tie in to the A story. They kept up with the rancher's wife in the B-story throughout. The problem was, the B-story wasn’t interesting. The characters were unlikable and the subplot did not add tension to the A story. I fast-forwarded past those segments.

Readers hate distractions. Every distraction you offer gives them a reason to stop reading. If you choose to have a B-story, make sure it complicates the main story in some way instead of running alongside it as a distraction. If it is organic to your story, include it. But don't come up with one to shore up a weak middle.

It is far better to have a strong, well-developed linear story than attempting to stuff in a B-story to pad your plot.

A weak middle can be remedied by layering conflict. Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict explains how.

Shifting the Narrative

I responded to a Facebook post by Donald Maass, of Donald Maass Literary Agency, with this observation: "My hobby horse is that writers, and other entertainers, are responsible for the messages we send and the mental viruses we perpetuate. A little exposure to toxicity isn't fatal, but a steady diet would explain why we are where we are."

He asked me to elaborate. I could not do that in a short post, so I am answering here with a slightly longish answer.

In my five-plus decades on the planet, I have seen the narrative in entertainment shift dramatically. From the lovable Sherriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry to every cop is crooked in Chicago Blue. Gang bangers went from being the bad guys to being the misunderstood hero. Entertainment tells us there is so much gang violence we can't stop it. Body counts in movies and television have risen to ridiculous numbers and there are never any consequences shown. So apathy sets in. We hide in our homes and stream and let the wars run amok on our city streets. Cops are being shot daily and citizens are being mishandled weekly. Children are victims of drive-by shootings. This is a reality, but we rarely see the other 98% of people behaving with civility. It skews perception to the point where the focus feeds the problem.

We have gone from the racist and hateful Archie Bunker illuminating our biases to dysfunctional friends and families normalizing name calling, emotional, verbal, even physical abuse all in service of a good laugh, especially in "reality TV." We dig under rocks to find the most bizarre and damaged and hold them up for ridicule so we can feel better about our lives instead of getting them psychological care. We push them to act worse to get better ratings, damn the real-world consequences. We crow with outrage when they prove to be worse than we originally intended. But still thousands tune in to The Kardashians and Real Housewives to watch rich bitches muck wrestle.

We raise arrogant, entitled, narcissistic people to celebrity status and reward them for notorious behavior to the point where we now have kids fighting, making bomb threats at school, taking weapons to school, and shooting up schools to get attention. Again, as long as it makes You Tube or the nightly news so that everyone knows their name.

We have normalized stranger danger and violent sex scenes to ramp up the ratings. I mean, we all trash rooms, tear up clothes, and stop elevators to express our passion, right?  And then we have The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise to further lower the tone. Then we wonder why our children are searching for love on telephone apps.

College life is depicted as a series of drunken bacchanals that would rival actual rites of Bacchus in too many to count motion pictures. And if a girl passes out and they photograph it while manhandling and raping her or a boy gets sodomized in the back of a school bus, it's just boys being boys or Animal House locker room talk. We give them a little slap on the wrist and move on. Men have always been that way, right? Wrong. That is an insult to all the good men out there and poor role modeling for our sons, but hey, as long it trends on social media. This is a perfect example of writing about something that needs to change instead of glorifying it.

Second place has become the first loser. Everything is a "battle" or "war" now and winning is the ultimate objective. Greed is good and everyone is corrupt from corporation heads, to our government officials, to the president, so why try to fight it? Once more, apathy sets in and we stay in our homes and pop popcorn and enjoy streaming House of Cards and Scandal.

There are rational people who see this stuff for what it is, sure. But there are masses of people fed this steady diet of garbage that never "read healthy." For every person who reads The New Yorker or Discover or National Geographic, there are thousands that read check-out tabloids. Therein lies the demise of our culture and the danger of encouraging apathy.

So, yes, I believe that writers and entertainers are responsible for the messages and mental viruses we perpetuate in our books, magazines, newspapers, movies, screenplays, and scripts. When we look at our content, we should consider the theme, tone, and message we wish to convey. Just because you can, should you?

I am not saying we shouldn't write about what is real or call attention to the problems in our society that need fixing. I would say that is our highest calling. However, you can write about something that is without suggesting that it should be.

I am not saying everything should be superficially happy happy joy joy. Rather, it is time to shift the narrative to reward and focus on people working toward being their best self and modeling healthy behavior in support of the betterment of our species. They need more screen time. Shows like Blue Bloods portray characters with character. You can add enough dramatic tension to good stories with admirable heroes to make them entertaining without drowning your audience in treacle.

I could write a thesis on this topic, but I will let this post stand as my "short" answer to a deep question.

I explored the topic in previous blog posts:

Toxic Messages Part 1

Toxic Messages Part 2

Subliminal Messages in Romance

Bad Romance

Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled exploration of genres.

Love or Money?

This week, I am over at the Blood Red Pencil discussing whether it is worth writing even if you are not raking in the cash.

What is Tone?

Whatever genre you choose, you have to choose the tone you wish to set.

What does that mean?

Tone is closely connected to theme. Theme is the message you wish your reader to take away from your story. You can explore the people, the place, the time, the rules, the behaviors, etc. You suggest whether something is good or bad. You can also present multiple sides to a thematic argument and let your audience decide whether something is good, bad, or morally ambiguous.

There can be light and dark scenes, up and down scenes, but what is your intention for the story overall? How do you want your reader to feel about the central theme?

Tone is revealed through setting, descriptions, actions, and dialogue. Tone is delivered via word choice and reflects the bias of your narrator.

Let's examine examples of tone. 

1. Caustic: the goal is to emphasize the ugly truth of the theme in a cutting way.

2. Comedic: the goal is to make your audience laugh with delight about the central theme.

3. Light-hearted: the goal is to entertain without getting too deep into the theme.

4. Ominous: the goal is to emphasize the seriousness and potential danger of the theme.

5. Sarcastic: the goal is to treat the central theme with contempt.

6. Serious: the goal is to treat the central theme with sober reflection despite the levity of the tale.

7. Suspenseful: the goal is to suggest the central theme has critical stakes.

8. Terrifying: the goal is frighten the reader by infusing the central theme with life and death consequences.

9. Thought Provoking: the goal is to leave the reader pondering the central theme long after the last page has been turned.

10. Tragic: the goal is to reveal a heart-breaking truth.

11. Wistful: the goal is to make the reader long for a past or a future that could have been.

It is important to consider the tone you wish to take with your overall story. When your tone is inconsistent, the reader will feel something is off even if she can't put her finger on it.

Continue reading about tone here.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.