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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.

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