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Lessons on Creating an Effective B Story in Your Script from 'NOPE'

September 13, 2022
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
5 min read time

Jordan Peele’s latest sci-fi/horror installment NOPE aka Not Of Planet Earth centers around brother and sister OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer). After the mysterious death of their beloved father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), the Haywood siblings are left with the impossible responsibility of keeping up their family business – Haywood’s Hollywood Horses.

After witnessing what they believe is a UAP [Unexplained Ariel Phenomenon] OJ and Emerald plan to capture an “Oprah Shot” – meaning a shot so good it will get them an interview with the media mogul herself. In short, if the Haywoods can get the money shot of the alien they can pay back the farm’s debt and restore the family’s name to fame. While this is the A story and central conflict of the film, it’s the B story that’s sparked the most conversation among audiences online.

 

Wait, what is a B story?

What is a B story and how do you make it stand out in your screenplay? Typically, the structure of a feature is three acts with at least two connecting storylines. Most of the time, the A story represents the external conflict for the main character and the B story is the internal conflict or emotional throughline of the story. It’s used as a device to inform the audience of the main character’s inner wants and needs. If done effectively, the B story will connect to the A story so they may have a conclusive arc.

The B story can take place in the present or the past. It can follow a separate character's journey within the same world as the A story. It can also be a tracking device providing necessary background information about our main character. Whatever the function, typically the B story should thread through your screenplay and have a well-rounded arc and ending, just as the A story does. 

 

Themes and questions Peele's script asks

NOPE, the film’s opening teaser is not a part of the A story, but the B story. Something that is not often done in screenwriting. Typically, the rule of thumb is that you always open the film with a scene that connects to your A story, to prepare your audience for what’s ahead. Here, not only does Peele break the rule, but he’ll continue to do so throughout the film.

We come to find out the story of an animal pushed to the edge is background information for a supporting player named Jupe [Steven Yuen] a former child actor who witnessed Gordy the Chimp’s attack. NOPE’s B story also echoes the overall theme of the film– the dangers of society’s obsession with spectacles. We, the audience, are riveted by danger, disaster, and despair. The more gruesome the better. We consume it, package it, and then sell it for money.

In this case, the alien that the Haywoods are trying to capture on film is the spectacle – something they can make money from. Gordy’s deadly history is a spectacle, something Jupe continues to make money from. Where is the line between morbid curiosity and exploitation? That’s what Peele wants to know, and he uses the B story to ask that question.

 

Learn the screenwriting "rules "so you can break them

Earlier I mentioned that the B story should not only connect to the A branch but have a rounded arc and ending as well. And while I still stand by that statement, Peele sidesteps it in NOPE. Gordy’s bloody B story ends with the death of Jupe. That’s a wrap. Curtain call. And to our knowledge, the Haywoods are never told the truth about that gruesome day on set.

So why does this matter? Well, in this case, I suspect the A story in NOPE was stuffed with so much plot that ending the B story early was the best decision to keep the momentum going. Because let's be honest, once a ballistic chimp is killed by laser sight in front of a ten-year-old, where can you go from there?

This is usually not how the B story is used in screenwriting, but for Peele, it works – kind of. While the ending of Gordy’s revenge propels us into act three, it also leaves us with a lingering question – what was the purpose of that?

At times, it felt like Peele was playing two separate movies in one, with the more interesting movie ending about an hour and a half in. And the internet agrees. Calls for a Gordy spin-off have been mentioned since the film’s release and therefore, I stand by the old rule of the supporting B story. Your script should be supported by the other storylines, not defined by them.

 

Outlining and structuring advice

So how do you execute an effective B-story in your screenplay? My first suggestion is by outlining. Whether you use a corkboard or Final Draft’s interactive Beat Board™, you need to outline your B story just as you would your A story. That means making sure it has an overall arc and supports your main character's wants and needs.

My second piece of advice to create an effective B story is to write from the emotional point of view of your character's journey. Remember, if the A story is the external goal, the B story should be an internal goal. What does your character want on the inside?

For Jupe, his experience with Gordy leads him to believe that he has a special bond with dangerous animals. Therefore, his external want is to capitalize on his seemingly positive relationship with The Viewers (the UAP), but his internal want is to feel the power of fame and notoriety he felt during his childhood again. Understanding what and how your character needs to internally evolve, even if they don’t understand it themselves, is key to writing an effective B story.

What makes Peele such an exciting artist is that he's not afraid to break the rules, especially when it comes to screenwriting. While I personally feel this break from the standard B story did a disservice to NOPE, I still regard Gordy’s storyline as one of the most terrifying sequences I have ever seen on screen. I could watch an entire film alone just based on Gordy’s Home! For those just starting out, try following “the rules” first, understand them, and then write them enough to know how to then break them.

 

You can watch NOPE in theatres everywhere.

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