by Paul Chitlik
In every movie of quality, there are three stories going on either simultaneously or in close proximity. One of the first things you need to look at when you approach a rewrite is to make sure all the stories are fulfilled and in the right proportions. The closer they are in theme and proximity, the better. They should support each other and the script as a whole. Knowing what they are and how to integrate them will make your script more consistent and stronger in its core. Here’s how I do it and how we talk about it in my seminars.
You already know the first two stories, commonly referred to as the A story and the B story. Let’s make those clear. The A story is what most people would call the plot. It’s the journey of your central character from the seemingly normal life s/he starts out with through the perilous quest for whatever his/her goal is. Yes, in a good story, that goal will change at the midpoint, but, for the most part, this is what people would call the central story of your picture.
The B story is less clear, though. This is the story of the central emotional relationship as seen through the eyes of the protagonist. In other words, the love interest in a romance or romantic comedy, the friend in the buddy pic, the kid in a father/daughter picture. This is the emotional heart of the picture, and even a rough and tumble picture like “Die Hard” has one. As a matter of fact, that’s what makes the picture so memorable – it has a heart. In every movie, there is a relationship to be established or repaired. That’s the B story. Making sure your B story is solid will add depth and emotion to your script, making it easier for the audience to relate to.
In a somewhat tricky reversal, in a romance or romantic comedy, the A story becomes the B story and the B story becomes the A story. Let’s have a look at two very different movies, “Die Hard” and “Life as We Know It.”
In “Die Hard,” there’s no doubt that the A story is about the takeover of the skyscraper by a terrorist group, though the movie starts out as a relationship pic – Willis’s John McClane is going out to Los Angeles to see if he can win his family back, or at least pay them a civil visit. Soon, the terrorists take over the building his wife works in and hold her and the other workers hostage. McClane’s goal becomes clear: defeat the terrorists, free the hostages, and get his wife back. In the end, he does them all, but the emphasis is definitely on dealing with Hans and his gang. And yet, he could have just walked away from all this had his wife not been a hostage, so the heart of the story is the relationship. That’s what engages the audience.
In “Life” the Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel characters are tasked with taking care of a little girl together. Though that is ostensibly the story, the real story is their romance and how it will take off and eventually influence what appears to be their primary goal as a couple. In fact, since it is a romantic comedy, the B story has become the A story – the more important story – and the A story has become the B story – the taking care of the child.
Okay, confused yet? Because there’s a C story in most every film, too. That’s the story of the character’s change, what most people call the “character arc.” Obviously this story goes hand in hand with the others, but it’s a good idea to have a clear grasp of a) what the character’s flaw is; b) when he realizes that flaw; and c) how he overcomes that flaw in the final challenge (climax).
So, how to best get a grip on these stories and use them to guide you through the rewrite? After reading through your latest draft, see if you can sketch out the seven points of each story. Briefly, the seven points are 1) the ordinary life of the character; 2) the inciting incident; 3) the end of act one – goal and plan; 4) the midpoint wherein the story goes off in a new direction and your character develops a more important goal; 5) the low, or all is lost, point; 6) the final challenge wherein your protagonist defeats his antagonist; and 7) the return to the now forever changed ordinary life.
Almost every movie can be seen in this way from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Avatar.” Organizing your script this way can simplify the rewrite process.
Yes, many of the points will (should) coincide. That means you’ve done your job well. But if you can’t identify the points of, say, the B story, then you have some work to do. If there is no C story, then you have some character work to do.
So, the first thing you must do is organize the A, B, and C stories from the point of view of the central character. Once you have these outlined (and they shouldn’t take more than a page each), it’s a good idea to twist your perspective around and look at the A story from the points of view of the person who is the central emotional relationship, and the person or force who is the antagonist. Then write the seven points of their stories. Of course, the antagonist doesn’t triumph in the end, but he has wants and needs (goals if you will) in the same way a protagonist does. And instead of a flaw, you might identify his human quality, the one that lifts him up from being just a two-dimensional villain. Doing this will give your antagonist more of a sense of purpose and will give your audience a better appreciation of his motives. It will also make for a fair fight and maybe even a little ambiguity, which is a good thing. Layers and depth, that’s what you’re looking to add in a rewrite.
Writing the wants and needs of the person who is the central emotional relationship of your protagonist will lend that person and that relationship depth as well. If you don’t find them in your story, that’s another factor you will need to consider adding during the rewrite. It’s really the emotional story which grips people and makes us care about what happens to the protagonist in the A story. Once you’ve got all these stories outlined, you can then go back and make sure that you’ve expressed them well and interwoven them into your script.
If you’ve just re-read your script, none of this re-outlining should take long. The mere fact of knowing each story in your script from each character’s POV will get you closer to a professionally polished screenplay. And any extra time you take to layer in new discoveries you make about your characters will be well rewarded with a richer, more meaningful, and emotional screenplay. In other words, it will make it a movie you and millions of others would like to see.
Paul Chitlik, screenwriter/producer/director, has written for all the major networks and studios. He was story editor for “The New Twilight Zone,” and staff writer for Showtime’s “Brothers.” He has written features for Rysher Entertainment, NuImage, Promark, and others. He received a WGA award nomination for his work on “The Twilight Zone,” a GLAAD Media Award nomination, and won a Genesis Award for a Showtime movie.