Not Love, Actually

(What's going on in your screenplay's B-story)


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and since I’m pretty sure you’ll get a ton of love-themed stuff in your inbox over the next few days, today I’m going to write about something other than romance.

Specifically, I want to address some questions I’ve been asked about “the B story” – what Blake Snyder described in Save the Cat as “the love story in most screenplays.”

But I thought you said this wasn’t going to be about romance?

I did. And we’re getting to that.

Here’s more from Save the Cat:

“[The B story] is also the story that carries the theme of the movie. I also think that the start of the B story, what takes place around page 30, is a little booster rocket that helps smooth over the shockingly obvious A story act break. Think about it. You’ve set up the A story, you’ve put it into motion, now we’ve had this abrupt jump into Act Two and you’ve landed in a whole new world. The B story says: ‘Enough already, how about talking about something else!’ Which is why the cutaway is usually in line with the A story… but new in scope.”

And while there are parts of this description that I don’t think are entirely accurate, there’s one thing Blake hints at here that we should explore further. It’s one thing the B story really should do — and it’s not about romance.

What is the B-story?

First of all, what do we even mean by “B-story”? It may not be exactly what you think.

Save the Cat uses the term “B story” in a more specific way than most industry folks. (That’s one thing Blake did really well in Save the Cat – turning certain phrases into STC-specific terms of art!) To most people, a B-story is simply a secondary plotline, a subplot. It may have a plot purpose, or a character purpose, or both.

There may be one subplot in a movie, but there may be more than one. Sometimes there are several subplots that all feel pretty equally weighted, and then writers get confused and panicky about which one is “the B story” and whether they’re breaking the rules and just what the rules even are…

But please remember: there isn’t one way. The whole trick of screenwriting is figuring out how to tell this particular story that you want to tell. If it needs a B-story – fine. If that B-story needs to be a romance – great.

Sometimes that’s the most effective choice, but certainly not always. Very often that’s not the point of the B-story or any other subplot.

The point of pretty much any relationship subplot in a feature film? Is what it does for or to the protagonist.

What does a B-story or subplot do?

These two parts of Blake’s description: “the story that carries the theme of the movie,” and “usually in line with the A story… but new in scope,” get at the most important aspect of a subplot.

As I mentioned above, a B-story (or any other subplot, for that matter) has either a plot function or a character function or both. Plot function aside, the character function of a subplot comes down to helping push the protagonist along their character arc.

Because feature films – in most cases, and especially mainstream movies – are about one central character. It’s their story. So everything in the movie serves a purpose in that story.

Hopefully we create interesting, dynamic supporting characters that don’t feel like they’re just chess pieces you’re moving around the board. But the bottom line is that the primary function of their presence is to contribute to the protagonist’s transformative experience. (Even if they don’t realize it and/or wouldn’t be willing or eager to do so. We’re talking about from the writer’s point of view.)

Or, to put it more simply, supporting characters are there to help the protagonist learn the thematic lesson. (Again, we’re speaking from the writer’s perspective, not the characters’.) That thematic lesson is at the heart of the protagonist’s character arc.

You’ve probably heard me say (a million times) that your screenplay should feel like it’s having one conversation about one thing.That “one thing” is really the big thematic idea that permeates the story. The protagonist’s character arc reflects that big thematic idea in some way, contributing to the conversation. The supporting characters and their roles in pushing the protagonist along that character arc contribute to the conversation too.

Now, there’s more than one way to push a character toward the lesson they need to learn, and the experience doesn’t always come with romance and roses. It’s not even guaranteed to be pleasant.

So while one movie’s B-story might be a romantic subplot wherein the supporting character is loving, nurturing, or supportive as they help the protagonist transform…

In another movie you get someone like Hannibal Lecter.

How to choose supporting characters and subplots for your story

If you’re having trouble figuring out what kind of supporting characters your story needs, one place to start is by thinking about them in terms of the force they can apply on your protagonist to change.

(I wrote about some of the most common ways this can work in this article about creating supporting characters via their functions in the story.)

Think about how the supporting character helps push the protagonist toward their key realization. And then layer interesting or surprising characterization on top of that. Or, maybe more precisely, give the supporting character traits that provide style and specificity to the way they perform their function.

Like if you want a character whose story function is to provide a new worldview that the protagonist ultimately adopts, and you decide to make her a sassy 8-year-old girl. The character may lead with her sassy characterization but over time – and perhaps as she and the protagonist grow closer – the girl can reveal the surprisingly profound observations or insights that inform her sassy attitude, and that soon affect the protagonist’s own way of thinking.

Knowing how the relationship works – what that function is that informs their dynamic – can help you work out the necessary beats in their relationship arc, aka the subplot. Which means this can help you figure out what else needs to happen in your screenplay.

Writers often come to me stumped about how to figure out what other scenes they need to write, what other events they should include when fleshing out their stories and outlining their screenplays. So using this strategy (figuring out the function of a supporting character and working out the beats of the relationship subplot with that in mind) helps you generate new scenes. And it’s not just arbitrarily sticking scenes into the screenplay! This is generating scenes that have a purpose and add something meaningful and valuable to the story.

We ❤️ subplots

A subplot (B-story or otherwise) has a function to fulfill in the screenplay. (If not, why is it there?)

And one of the things it can do – and probably should do, if it’s going to really pull its weight in the script – is help push the protagonist toward the transformed state, the end of their character arc. When a subplot involves a relationship, the key to that relationship dynamic is how it pushes the protagonist toward their thematic lesson and ultimately their transformation.

Even if you are writing a romantic subplot, that’s the key to keep in mind: the subplot will add more value and meaning to the story if it helps push the protagonist toward the transformed state. Supporting characters support the protagonist’s story. So to be most effective, they should in some way (even if it’s not pleasant) help the protagonist learn the lesson they need from this experience.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.