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How late is too late to start a B-story?

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I sent a question to Alex Epstein last night, asking how late was too late to start a B-story in a spec script. Here's his answer:

The standard is that something happens in every act in every story. Usually more things happen in the A story, fewer in the B, fewest in the C; but you have to serve each story in each act.

So by that standard: top of the second act is too late to start a B story. There may be counterexamples out there, but it's not going to make you look good if you do it. The point of a spec is to show you can work creatively within the form, not that you can get away with breaking it. And while with enough genius and time, you might be able to start a story successfully in the second act, on staff you are not going to be able to do that reliably when you have only week to beat the thing out.

I'm a bit conflicted on this. Alex has enough experience and credibility to crush me flat, and ignoring his advice feels like the wrong thing to do. On a subconscious level I already knew the answer, and I know that he is right, but there must be room in a story framework to do things differently as long as you have a good reason. Ideally I would love to not have to screw around with a B-story at all, and if I can manage it, I refuse to do a C-story. There is not enough time for that many threads; not in the 41-43 minutes a one-hour drama has been whittled down to.

I'm really not sure what to do. I can see how screwing around with the structure like this could turn people off -- people I want to hire me -- but how much more turned off are they going to be when I hand them a script that's "by the numbers", but an inferior story? I would not consider doing this if the story hadn't taken me down this road, and maybe that's my lack of experience and discipline showing through. Maybe I can fix it when the script is done without mashing it up too badly. Maybe it's fine the way it is.

Alex said that on staff, time is going to be a major factor in trying something that complex, and that's a perfectly good point, but does it matter? I'm not trying to invent a new way of writing scripts, and I've never started a B-story this late before. My first spec, in fact, started the A-story in the teaser, and immediately started the B-story on the first page of the first act. I can do it, this story just didn't want to be told this way, and isn't the point of multiple specs to show that you can write for different shows in different ways without being a mindless drone?

I just don't know. There's a perfect place in the first act that I can stick the B-story thread in, but then I'll have a 18.5 page first act and will have to cut out a significant chunk to make it reasonable. I asked Alex and got the answer I didn't want, which was either brilliant, or really stupid of me. I'll have to put some thought into this.
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Jul 15, 2006, 2:56:00 PM
One possibility is split your first B story scene in half, and just "tease" it in the first act. Then you've "served" the B story, but you don't really get to the meat of it later, when it feels more organic.

Or find a way to add an earlier scene that serves the story.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.