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24

Update: PT53 transcript now available

Alex and Nick discuss the importance of weaving A, B and C stories in TV writing, and interesting ways of doing it in TV scripts.

Why is it important to cut between storylines in TV? When should you start and end each storyline? Which storylines should you spend more time on in your TV script? When should you only do a single A story? What are some noteworthy and unique formats for A/B/C plotlines?

Plus, we talk about where to read TV scripts.

The Paper Team become master-weavers…

SHOWNOTES

Content

Paper Scraps (FKA Odds-and-ends): Finding TV scripts (00:55)
1 – Why does TV have A/B/C stories? (03:51)
2 – Nuts and bolts of using A/B/C stories (10:27)
3 – Interesting and non-traditional uses of weaving A/B/C stories in TV (18:22)
Takeaways and Resources (32:22)

Links

Writers Guild Foundation Library
TV Calling Script Library
Zen134237
Lee Thomson Script Library
Simply Scripts
Daily Script
IMSDb
“What are A, B, and C stories in screenwriting?” – TV Calling
Team America Montage (Video)
“Marge vs. the Monorail” (4×12 – The Simpsons)
“Ozymandias” (5×14 – Breaking Bad)
“That’s My Dog” (4×05 – Six Feet Under)
“Eleven Angry Men and One Dick” (3×07 – 3rd Rock from the Sun)
Boomtown
Graham Yost
24 (TV Series)
“Kim vs. the Cougar: The Oral History of 24’s Most Infamous Scene” – Vulture
“My Bad” (1×06 – Scrubs)
Awake (TV Series)
Kyle Killen
“How Lost revolutionized storytelling” – TV Calling
“Walkabout” (1×04 – Lost)
“The Constant” (4×05 – Lost)
Watchmen
Slaughterhouse-Five
This Is Us
Oz (TV Series)
Carnivàle
“Bowling” (2×20 – Malcom in the Middle)
Sliding Doors
“Remedial Chaos Theory” (3×04 – Community)
“Split” (3×01 – Coupling)
“A Rickle in Time” (2×01 – Rick & Morty)

Resources

“Elephant Bucks” – Sheldon Bull
“Cracking the Sitcom Code” – The Atlantic
“Television Writing from the Inside Out” – Larry Brody
Plot Threads (TV Tropes)
Plot Parallel (TV Tropes)
Two Lines, No Waiting (TV Tropes)
Four Lines, All Waiting (TV Tropes)

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Alex Switzky for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

You’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about the A plot, B plot, and sometimes C plot when referring to TV shows, episodes and general TV writing.
So, what does “A/B/C stories” mean in the context of scripts?

Simply put, the term refers to the different narrative and story threads in your TV episode.

The “A story” will be the primary focus of your story. Meaning it will usually be about the lead and have the most amount of scenes (i.e. screen-time).
The “B story” is generally a parallel storyline headed by more secondary characters.
The “C story” (and deeper in the alphabet), also called a “runner“, are about ongoing/macro stories that pay off long-term (or, in the case of some comedies, quick gag scenes).

In procedurals, rule of thumb is that the A story will be centered on the “case of the week”, while the B story is the personal aspect of the leads. The C story is almost always some kind of “runner” that will have a long-term impact on the season arc.
For example: a detective is investigating a crime of passion (A story) while dealing with her own messy divorce (B story) and the precinct is trying to add new blood to the team (C story).
Even serialized or “macro” procedurals (like The Missing, The Fall or Broadchurch) have their A stories dedicated to the crime of the season, and how they impact the leads.

In more serialized shows, the A/B/C stories will often be divided based on characters and themes.
The Game of Thrones pilot has an A story all about Ned Stark and his family, while the B and C stories are split between Jaime/Cersei and Daenerys/Viserys.
Breaking Bad‘s pilot is almost a complete through-line A story about Walt, with some looser threads with Jesse and Skyler.

How much weight do you give each thread?

The real focus of your episode should be the A story. That’s the meat of the episode since it’s about your main character — and therefore requires many story beats to achieve a compelling character’s journey. Once you’ve figured that out, you can work from your other characters and fill in other narrative needs.

Some B and C stories directly come from the A story. Maybe the main character generates a problem in her A story, which snowballs into a secondary character having to deal in the B story with something related to that A problem.
Watch 24 and its pilot for an excellent illustration of the A story spiraling out into more threads.

The pacing of a TV show is often dictated by the A/B/C stories, and how quickly you alternate (or “cut”) between them. The shorter the scenes and faster the cuts, the more fast-paced it will seem. This is a trick used in “montages” (think of any show with a pop music montage at the end).
On the flip side, you can stay with a singular scene or storyline for a long time, and build up the tension.

Ideally, those A/B/C threads will echo one another, and connect with each other at some point in the episode.
If you do cut back-and-forth at a furious speed, then there needs to be some kind of correlation between the threads — otherwise you’ll leave your audience and reader completely lost.

Should you limit yourself to three threads?

Well, once again, it depends on the show you’re writing.

For half-hours/comedies, you’ll find an A and B story, with at most a C “runner” of one or two scenes. There just isn’t enough real-estate to have more.
The A story will already have, say, three beats an act (meaning upwards of nine for an entire episode), while the B story will have two (so six scenes total). There’s only going to have room for a couple of C scenes if need be.

For one-hours/dramas, the amount of threads varies greatly based on the genre and format of that series or episode.
You can take a look at How to Get Away with Murder for an extreme example of a serialized show that runs the gamut of the alphabet. It’s juggling with so many side-storylines (since it’s a primetime soap) to burn through story and keep its narrative momentum going. Whether or not it’s successful at pulling off this pacing is up to your preferences.
Better Call Saul is a good counter-example of a show very focused on its A (and occasionally B) storylines, which rarely deviate into other threads. That’s because Saul (or whoever the episode’s focused on) is truly the driving lead of the story. Look at Dexter for another idea of A stories filling almost all the episode.

Very few dramas (perhaps only single-episode anthologies) just have an A story for that hour. That’s because, to maintain dramatic tension, you’ll want to cut away to something else.
The fewer the stories, the more important it is to have a compelling narrative and characters that propel you through the script. You don’t have the luxury to “cut away” to something else, which can be a double-edged sword.
The first half of Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias” episode makes the best case for an A-only episode, but it has the benefit of being the payoff to a 5-year-long journey. In other words, not something you’d want to bank on in every episode.

You may think that TV structure seems very rigorous and pragmatic — and in some way it is.
It’s a bit like musical composition. There are rules to creating a music sheet, but it’s up to you to fill that abstract document with a fun and unique melody.

Write on.

Alex and Nick explore the differences in what an episode looks like between episodic or procedural TV and serialized shows.

How has the TV episode evolved over the years? What does an episode mean in the age of binge-watching? What are some memorable stand-alone and serialized episodes?

The Paper Team offers a self-contained narrative…

SHOWNOTES

Content

1 – The Stand-Alone Episode (00:34)
2 – The Serialized Episode (13:23)
3 – What is a TV episode today? (35:34)
4 – Critical reception of Episodic vs. Serialized TV (42:45)
Next Week On (50:03)

Links

Masters of Horror
“22 Short Films About Springfield” (7×21 – The Simpsons)
“Window of Opportunity” (4×06 – Stargate SG-1)
“The Farnsworth Parabox” (4×15 – Futurama)
“Hush” (4×10 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Donald Trump “Law & Order: SVU” Episode Gets Post-Election Airdate
6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park
“Restless” (4×22 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
“Grave Danger” (5×24-25 – CSI)
Monte-Carlo Television Festival
MIPTV Media Market
Coupling (US)
Law & Order: UK
Paris enquêtes criminelles
Babylon 5
The Cuckoo Hour
Dream On
“A Mother’s Work” (6×13 – Sons of Anarchy)
“Phase One” (2×13 – Alias)
“Other Things You Could Be Doing” (2×12 – You’re the Worst)
“Development Arrested” (3×13 – Arrested Development)
Why mythological shows are often idolized
NY Times Reviews Amazon’s Goliath Out of Order
“Two Boats and a Helicopter” (1×03 – The Leftovers)
“Guest” (1×06 – The Leftovers)
In Praise of Midbrow TV

Special thanks to Jason J. Cohn for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

Why even bother talking about my “TV predictions” over the past seven years?
For one, I can’t resist channeling my Nikki Finke, and screaming “TOLDJA!” over and over again.
More importantly though, looking back, I’m actually surprised at the amount of things I predicted in the first place.
And what better way to celebrate seven years than by tooting one’s horn?

Let’s start with hipsterdom: the cool things I thought were cool before everyone else.

Numero uno has got to be, hands down, Breaking Bad. Remember: that show was so underrated, I thought it would never win an Emmy. Thankfully, everyone came to their senses before the series finale. Praising Breaking Bad has since become a banality.

There’s another show, and tad more recent in the US TV-verse: Black Mirror. Or as I called it: the best UK show no one knows about.
Also worth noting on the list: The Shadow Line, Dancing on the Edge, Inside Men, Cuckoo, Mr. Selfridge, and The Hour.

Say it with me: TOLDJA (that these were great shows)!

I know. Those weren’t really TV industry predictions. (I did mention being a hipster though.)

How about this…

Six years before ClickHole happened, I did this amazing list of five games Hollywood should make into movies. If only I had also written for Buzzfeed, I would be able to call myself a journalist!
The aforementioned comedic clickbait list was in response to a previous post I did about Hollywood’s trivial pursuit of games. (Get it?) Thankfully, we didn’t get many of these adaptations on the screen. Although we are getting Pixels.

Okay.
Moving on to actual TV industry predictions.

Let’s address the big elephanTOLDJA in the room with a post from early 2011—

Is Netflix’s original programming strategy a game-changer?

Spoiler alert (if you haven’t read the original post): yes.

The House of Cards two-season deal had just been announced, so I wrote this think-piece about the future of television. Over four years later, people are just starting to realize this apparently. Yet we’ve already seen it’s already the case: Netflix has changed the game. Good thing I bought some Netflix shares when they were under $85.

And speaking of the future of television—
On the cusp of the 24 and Lost series finales (over five years ago!), I published an extensive article entitled “Ding Dong, Appointment TV is Dead“.
As the name doesn’t imply but outright states, I dig deep into the rise and fall of so-called “appointment TV”—now extinct.
And I know what you’re going to say, which is why way back when I also mentioned the current advent of “Event TV”. Oh, and “social television”. Because Twitter.

Which brings us to two little articles from 2008…
Nine ideas to save television Part One and Part Two.

As of June 2015, I’m 9 for 9 on applied and successful ideas. Why am I still not CEO of ViaDisneyBCVersal? Maybe I should have gotten an MBA in horribleness.

Several of my nine ideas have since become ubiquitous:
– (1) Shows all year long
– (2) VOD
– (3) Fewer ads
– (5) Cost efficiency
– (6) Webisodes
– (9) Taking chances

The other three are a bit more recent “trends” (for better or for worse):
– (4) Shorter seasons
Pretty self-explanatory now, but seven years ago, it was a head-scratching thought for a lot of people. I even called it, yes, a game-changer.
– (7) Re-develop ideas and pilots
Look at the sea of reboots/makes/quels we’re in. It’s all about IPs now. I also suggested networks should redevelop/tweak their DOA pilots. Almost a no-brainer strategy nowadays.
– (8) Big names for big shows
This one is now an entrenched problem, and controversial for a lot of up-and-coming writers. It’s now harder than ever to transition from the lower echelons to EP-level. All thanks to networks only wanting “seasoned showrunners” for their writing rooms. And that’s about 20 people in this town.

So. That’s that.
Yes, I just spent an entire post patting myself on the back. It’s just another way of celebrating the evolution of TV over the past seven years.

I’ll be sure to make a ton of other predictions. I seem to always be right. I also need an encyclopedia to keep track of every good TV show out there.

Too much content. The ultimate first-world problem.

Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

707 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


Write on.


P.S.: New around? You should start here.

What’s Alex Watching?

The Good FightThe LeftoversThe Chris Gethard ShowMaster of NoneLegion
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