A 90-120 minute movie about a hero who only accomplishes one goal, would require him to complete at least a dozen steps to fill all the screen time. This would be painfully slow and lack depth. The solution is to give the hero multiple needs to fill, each with their own goal, conditions and complications. There’s no right answer for how many story lines you should have, but the industry standard is three: An “A-story,” “B-story,” and “C-story.” This gives you just enough content to fill 90-120 pages without things getting too complicated, choppy or fast.
If all three story lines contain the same amount of screen time, each one would feel equally important, and it would be unclear what the driving force of the movie is. Therefore, the standard is for the A-story to take up 60-70% of the screen time. The B-story takes up 20-30%, and the C-story takes up 5-10%. This gives the hero enough time to complete the twelve-steps to accomplishing a goal, 3-4 times in the A-story, 1-3 times in the B-story and once in the C-story.
The A, B and C-storylines serve a specific purpose, which defines the need/s the hero is attempting to satisfy in each storyline:
The A-story is the longest storyline. So it carries the story, which means the hero’s ultimate goal in the A-story is the driving force of the story. Since the story needs the hero to be active, it makes sense that the hero’s A-story goal is to achieve an external, tangible goal. It’s what he wants to do most in life. It’s the impact/change he wants to have on the external universe.
Below are some of the most common A-storyline goals:
- Save his world, home, business or a loved one’s home or business.
- Win a contest.
- Stop a killer, monster, oppressor or kidnapper.
- Find or return home.
- Fulfill a job contract.
- Get rich, powerful or otherwise successful.
- Get revenge.
The B-story could be another tangible goal, but the standard is for the B-story goal to be what the hero’s heart wants most in life. It’s what he wants to become. It’s his quest for intangible, interpersonal, metaphysical, and/or internal accomplishment. It’s the impact/change he needs/wants in his internal universe. The hero may have to do something tangible to fulfill the condition of the B-story goal, but the topic/theme of the quest is psychological, inter-personal or spiritual.
It creates the most tension when the B-storyline goal is a condition of the A-story goal. This means the hero has to achieve his B-story goal before he can achieve his external goal. This is psychologically satisfying for the audience, because the hero’s external progress depends on his internal growth, which brings the quest full circle.
Below are some of the most common B-storylines:
- The hero wants someone to fall in love with him. This is the most common B-story.
- The hero wants to save, protect or help a loved one (if that’s not already the A-story goal).
- The hero wants to prove his worth/virtue and be respected or accepted by himself, his lover, boss, children, parents, teacher or social group.
- The hero wants or needs to overcome an internal flaw. For a list of character flaws, do an internet search for lists of personality disorders, emotional disorders, behavioral disorders or character flaw tropes.
If you want to write a story that is more emotion-based and focused on interpersonal relationships, you can swap the A-story and B-story so that the longer A-story revolves around the hero’s internal goal, and the shorter B-story revolves around the hero’s external goal. The shorter action-oriented storyline can still drive the story if you want.
In “Back to the Future,” Marty spends most of his screen time unifying his parents to fulfill his dream of having a functional family, which is a condition he must fulfill before he can use his time machine to go back to the future, which he only spends about 20 minutes doing.
In “Along Came Polly,” the hero spends most of his time falling in love with a woman named Polly. He only spends about 20 minutes completing a job for his boss, in which he learns the life lesson he needs to know in order to keep Polly.
The C-story is an optional miniature side-story. If you have a C-story, it will appear in the last beat of the movie, which hints at what the future holds for the hero. So the C-story arc would logically involve solving a problem that sets the hero up for his next adventure.
You have three options when adding your third (or more) storyline/s.
1: Each storyline represents another quest for the hero. It’s the hero’s quest to accomplish whatever the third most important goal in life is for him, based on his beliefs. It can be used tactically to provide the hero with a resource he’ll need to solve the A-story line, or it can be a fun time-filler that could be cut without affecting the main storylines. In “Back to the Future,” the hero tries to prevent his mentor from dying in the future.
2: Each storyline follows a character’s quest to fulfill their need other than the hero, such as the antagonist, love interest or sidekick. The storyline should be relevant to the hero’s ultimate goal or it will feel irrelevant and distracting. The C-story will have the most impact if it’s the character’s B-story and conflicts with the hero’s A or B-story goals.
3: Each storyline represents a quest for one of the minor characters. This option has less impact on the story and the viewer, which can be a good vehicle for comic relief or fleshing out the tone of a genre-centric story… unless you’re doing a story like “Snatch” or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” where there are multiple characters with conflicting goals that keep crossing paths. Either way, the minor character/s’ goals should somehow align or conflict with another main character’s ultimate goal/s, preferably the hero. Otherwise, the storyline is an unnecessary distraction. However, that can work to your advantage if you’re writing a mystery story where you want to misdirect the audience’s attention.
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