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Monday, March 13, 2023

Dealing with Self-Doubt as a Writer

Dealing with self-doubt can be an important skill to learn as a writer. While doubt often feels like a negative experience, it's actually arguably a natural, healthy one. Once you properly understand doubt, the trick is to keep it from becoming toxically unbalanced.

Quite a while ago at this point, a follower asked me a question that related to self-doubt. 

Now, I'm certainly not a psychologist or a therapist or anything like that. But I've certainly been plagued by self-doubt as much as probably any writer--and when I was starting out, likely even more.

I definitely don't know everything on the subject, and if you are dealing with legit trauma, you'll probably want to go to a professional. 

With that said, I think my views on it may be useful to some people. (They are also useful for me to revisit.) And I know there will be some people who disagree with what I say--and that's okay. No one has to agree with me on everything.

But maybe you will learn something new.

Because we all deal with self-doubt on occasion. 

And if you are a person who literally never experiences self-doubt, while many would likely envy you, I personally would be a little worried for you, for reasons that will make sense by the end of this article.

You see, contrary to what our culture seems to want us to believe, experiencing some form of self-doubt is a natural--and I'd even argue--healthy thing.

It only truly becomes a problem when it is so unbalanced, that it becomes toxic, that you let it stop you from doing anything, from living the life of your dreams.

If you can't tell yet . . . my take on this topic will likely be atypical.

But I do think it will be helpful.

First, however, I want to lay out some important groundwork. . . .

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Testing Fate: A Closer Look at Person vs. Fate Conflict

Conflict is key to writing great stories. And while writers may categorize conflict differently, I categorize conflict into eight types:

Person vs. Self 

Person vs. Person 

Person vs. Nature 

Person vs. Society 

Person vs. God 

Person vs. Fate 

Person vs. the Supernatural 

Person vs. Technology 

In today’s modern times, the Person vs. God conflict often gets left off lists or is combined with or even replaced by the Person vs. Fate conflict. But because fate conflicts don’t necessarily have gods, and god conflicts don’t necessarily include fate, I put them in separate categories.

Out of all the conflict types, Person vs. Fate is often the most misunderstood.

Monday, February 13, 2023

How to Write Strong Character Relationships: Tips, Arcs, Plot, Structure

Writing strong character relationships is critical for any author to master. Nearly every story, in nearly every genre, will feature a relationship for a plotline--whether that relationship is for the primary, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary plot, and whether that relationship is positive or negative, for allies, friends, love interests, coworkers, rivals, enemies, or what have you. 

Set up the relationship dynamics right in your story, and any relationship will be easier to write.

Authors often use relationship plotlines because they fit exactly between the external plot and the internal plot. They aren't as broad and far-reaching as the external plot, but they aren't as deep or personal as the internal plot. This makes them a perfect fit to add dimension to any story.

Hello, everyone! I'm officially finishing up my relationship series (for now) with an overview of what we've covered. This page will work well to refresh you on the topic and help you find and recall any info you may need to come back to later. I hope this journey has been helpful to you, and I hope this page will help anyone new here, looking for a guide to writing relationships.

Please note for below: "Character A" and "Character B" may refer to either character in the relationship.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Structuring Relationship Arcs & Plots in a Series

Structuring relationship arcs and plots throughout a series can sometimes feel a little nebulous and daunting. Plenty of writers have messed up such attempts. Luckily, plenty of others get them right, and so can you. Just like everything else in this relationship arc and plot series though, there is . . . a lot of room for variation. Nonetheless, this article will give you foundational guidelines to help you get it right in your series.

Hello, everyone! I thought I was basically done with my relationship articles, but I have been asked a couple of times how to handle relationship arcs and plotlines in a series. Well, in some ways, it is similar to how you handle character arcs in a series, which means . . .  there is more than one way to do it.

Monday, January 23, 2023

BIG NEWS: My Online Writing Course!

So, I've been working on a secret project: a live, online writing course. Yay! ðŸŽ‰ I'm teaming up with My Story Doctor to bring forth a nearly 30-hour class all about developing solid content for stories. And now? It's open for enrollment.

The Triarchy Method of Story: A New Writing Course by September C. Fawkes

The Triarchy Method will help you craft your best book by focusing on what matters most: The “bones” of story. This content-focused course will help you brainstorm better and more relevant material, evaluate what ideas most belong in your story (preventing you from writing hundreds of pages that need to be scrapped), and craft a page-turning plot with compelling characters that sticks with readers long after they’ve closed the book (. . . and hopefully leads them to preorder your next book). The Triarchy Method will illuminate your way to a stronger, solid story.

But only under one condition: You must do the work.

Whether you are in the brainstorming stage, writing stage, or revising stage, and whether you prefer to pants or plan your first draft, strong bones lead to strong stories. So, what are the bones? I call them “The Triarchy of Story,” and they are as follows:


Character is represented by the rib cage—it houses the heart of story. It’s how the audience gains emotional experience from the narrative, through (to some degree) empathy.


Plot is represented by the backbone—it holds the story upright and together. It’s the curvature that makes up the narrative arc, the spine that runs from beginning to end.


Theme is represented by the skull—it hosts the intellect of story. It’s how the audience gleans meaning that sticks with them long after the narrative is over. It’s why the story matters.

While some stories and genres may (rightfully) emphasize one bone over the others, it’s the progression of these elements that turns ideas into stories

And if any of this sounds a little familiar to you, it's because I've talked about the triarchy on here before--as the "trinity of storytelling" (but, ya know "bones" and "trinity" don't really work the greatest for branding and marketing, for obvious reasons ✝️🙃).

Nearly every scene, every chapter in your story should be progressing one of these three things. If it’s not, it’s likely filler (even if cleverly disguised filler (painful, I know)). Ideally, the majority of scenes in most stories will actually be progressing all three simultaneously. Don’t worry—I will be digging deep into each element to help you unbury your own story’s bones to accomplish this.

We will be focusing on core principles of each.

For characters, we will talk about your protagonist’s internal wants and backstory, the four basic types of arcs, how to build a balanced cast and make characters complex. We will also talk about agency, archetypes, relationships, and more.

For plot, we will cover the importance of goals, how to pick the right antagonistic forces, how to make conflicts meaningful, and why stakes are critical to keep the pages turning. We will also cover how to create a sense of progress and setbacks, escalate costs, craft turning points, write reveals and twists, and more.

For theme, we will discuss its often misunderstood components, and how to show them effectively through the story. We will also discuss how to replicate the human experience so that your reader comes away wiser, better, and more intelligent—with the story sticking to them long after The End.

We will always keep in mind these are principles, not laws, so there is room for variation (which we will talk about).

Of course, though, simply having a rib cage, backbone, and skull isn’t usually enough—you need to organize them into a coherent structure. They need to be arranged into their proper places, so they look “human” to other humans (i.e. like a “story” to other humans).

This is where structure comes in.

After digging up the bones, we’ll structure them in a way that is familiar and understandable to the audience.

We will structure not only the plot, but the character cast and theme as well. We will cover basic story structure, scene structure, act structure, and narrative arc beats.

Near the end of the course, we will workshop one of your scenes in class. And your final assignment will be to turn in a guided outline of your story for feedback.

Ideally, once the bones are strong and in place, your story will be—more or less—writing itself.

Not only can The Triarchy Method help you with your current story, but it can help you with all future stories.

I’ll give you the tools, you bring the dream—roll up your sleeves for some digging, because together we’re gonna make your story bone-solid.


This is a live, online course that will be limited to 10 students.

Classes will be every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 pm Mountain Time (8:30 pm EST), starting March 7th and ending on May 25th. If you miss a class, there will be links to the recordings and material so that you can review them later.

Nearly every lesson includes a developmental assignment, which I will give basic feedback on.

Also, if you desire, you can be added to a brainstorming/writing group or partnership to meet with outside of class.

For a full description, details, tentative schedule, and registration, head over to My Story Doctor.


I love sharing my enthusiasm for writing, and I think it's no secret I like thoroughly dissecting the craft. I also enjoy teaching. So this will be an exciting new venture. If you've been following me for a while, you'll likely notice the course covers some familiar concepts I've talked about on my blog. I'm excited to dig deep into those concepts and cover new ones, while also explaining how they all connect (which is certainly too difficult and massive to fit into a single blog post (or blog series)).

Whether you register or not, thanks for being here and sharing this special milestone with me--it's kind of a big deal to me. (I'd also appreciate it if you spread the word ðŸ˜‰) May all your writing dreams come true🙏

- September C. Fawkes

Monday, January 9, 2023

Structuring Your Relationship Plotline, Part 2: Key Beats


Beat sheets are valuable tools for structuring and writing a story. They can be just as valuable when structuring and writing a relationship arc. In reality, I could write up a beat sheet for each relationship arc. Today, I've decided to go over the key beats, in the order they most frequently appear (which usually applies to positive change relationships). 

In my previous article, I laid out a foundational approach to structuring your relationship plotlines. That will likely be more useful to you in structuring your relationship arc, than following these beats in the presented order. Once you understand the foundational principles, you can successfully manipulate any beat sheet to suit what you are writing. This is why I titled this post "key beats" and not "beat sheet." There are plenty of relationship plotlines that don't adhere to these exact beats or this exact order.

Nonetheless, knowing what is most common can help you discern how to handle yours. Your relationship plotline can follow this exactly, or you can vary it (which I'll talk about more at the end). 

So far, we have covered relationship arcs, relationship plots, and the foundational approach to relationship structure. Let's finish this up with the common key beats.

In this ongoing relationship series, I intentionally picked relationship arcs that appear quite different from each other, to show variation. For this reason, I'll be using Monsters Inc. as a main ongoing example below, while simply referencing some beats in my other ongoing examples; Monsters Inc. follows these beats, in this order, exactly. (Many of my other examples, do not.)

(Note for below: "Character A" and "Character B" can be either character in the relationship.)

Monday, December 12, 2022

Structuring Your Relationship Plotline

A relationship plotline will be present in most stories. It will have a relationship arc and follow the principles of plot (according to relationships), but like any plotline, it also needs a sense of structure. It needs to be organized in a coherent way for the audience, so they can follow and appreciate the progression or deterioration of the relationship.

This article will help you structure the relationship plots you're writing--whether the relationship features love interests, friends, family, allies, rivals, or even enemies (and everything in between).

Now . . . I admit, I've been debating a lot about how to write this article, if I should put forth a general foundational approach to the structure, or if I should get more specific and offer a beat sheet. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the latter would be pretty complicated, since each relationship plotline can be affected by the external and internal plotlines and could have a different relationship arc. It also seems I'd need a beat sheet for each relationship arc type, and even within those, there can be variations.

That might be a project for later down the road.

Plus, when you understand the foundational principles first, the beat sheets make more sense and you know how to stray from them for the effect you want.

When you understand the foundational principles, you're more likely to be a chef, not a cook.

So, with that said, I've opted for the former today . . . but next time, I will have an article on key beats  (and how they are most frequently structured) that you can manipulate to suit your relationship plotline.

Here are a couple of things for you to keep in mind . . . 

- How much you develop your relationship plotline may depend on how prominent the plotline is in the story. A relationship that works as an A Story must be developed enough to carry the narrative and all the critical moments must happen on page. A relationship that works as the C Story will be more understated and may have more happening off page. There are a lot of ways to play with the relationship plotline (as I've discussed), so how much attention you give it and how it is interweaved with the other plotlines will depend on your story.

But regardless of how prominent the plotline is, if it's a plotline it still needs the basic elements of plot and it still needs to be delivered to the audience through structure.

- Where the relationship plotline starts may depend on how prominent the plotline is. This brings me to the next section.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Tertiary Principles

Writing a relationship between characters into a strong plot, requires understanding the principles of plot . . . and how to apply them to a relationship journey.

So far, we have covered the four basic types of relationship arcs.

How the primary principles of plot apply to relationships (goals, antagonists, conflict, and consequences).

And how the secondary principles of plot apply to them (progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points).

Today we will finish up with that by going over the tertiary principles: plans, gaps, and crises.

I've already covered these topics in depth for plot in general. In this series, I'm specifically applying them to relationships. So, if you need more explanation on any of them, please see . . . 

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

With that said, let's jump in!

Plans in Relationship Plots

Having a plan to get the goal not only reinforces the goal itself (because it shows the character wants the goal), but it also reinforces a sense of progress. When the audience knows what's supposed to happen, they can tell whether what is happening is bringing the character closer to, or further from, the desired outcome. And every setback feels sharper.

Plans make the plot feel more specific, and less vague.

Now in some stories, the plan may be more subtle and implied, while in others, it may be more blatant and spelled out. Regardless, the audience typically benefits from knowing how the character intends to move forward (though all rules can be broken for the right reasons).

You can read more about plans here.

In a relationship plotline, the plan is not so complicated.

Earlier we talked about how at the basic level, the character is trying to draw closer to or push away from the other character. (Or in some cases, maintain the current situation.)

How are they going to do that? 

That's the plan.

Sam is going to follow Frodo, carry supplies, and cook to support his friend on the road to Mount Doom. (In contrast, Frodo may secretly get on a boat and try to leave Sam behind.)

Elizabeth is going to make sure Darcy isn't around before she goes to Pemberly, so she has no chance to run into him.

Scully is going to have her gun out for backup, so she can shoot someone dangerous before they can shoot Mulder.

Obi-wan is going to track down Anakin to confront him and put an end to things.

Will is going to make Mike a present and help him with Eleven. 

Winston is going to find a secret place where he can be with Julia.

Estella is going to make a mockery of the Baroness by destroying her fashion.

There are a million concrete things a plan can be.

How much of the plan needs to actually be on the page will depend on how much of it is common sense, how prominent the plotline is, and how accurately things go according to plan (the more accurate, the less the audience needs the plan ahead of time). 

In The X-Files, the fact Scully is going to have her gun out to protect her partner is common sense, but it's still a sign of preparation--of planning--for what could happen. Other times, her plans are more specific, particularly when the relationship plotline is more prominent. For example, she may need to locate evidence and meet up with an antagonist to get Mulder back safely.

In 1984, moving the relationship closer must always have a plan, because the Party is constantly on the watch and may separate the couple at any moment. So if Winston and Julia want to spend time together, they have to decide on when, where, and how. 

If Sulley wants to send Boo away from him, he needs to get her back to Monsters Inc. and find her door. At the same time, though, he's subconsciously growing fond of her, and so wants to make sure she's safe. So he needs to dress her up like a monster and find the right door. (There is room for complexity, depending on what part of the arc and structure you are at.)

And always remember the external and internal plotlines can influence the relationship one. So it may be they influence the plan.

The plan doesn't always need to be obvious on the page (and in relationships, may sometimes even be somewhat subconscious), but it's usually best if there is one.

Gaps in Relationship Plots

The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen.

In a plan, the character thinks they know what they need to do to get the desired outcome. So the character takes an action, but when reality delivers something different than anticipated, it creates a gap.

Will makes Mike a present, but when Mike comes to visit, he is blind to Will. This works as a gap.

Winston thinks he has found a trustworthy landlord to allow him to keep seeing Julia, but the man is actually in league with the Party. This creates a gap. Winston actually brought Julia and himself right to the Party.

In regards to relationships, I don't know that there is much more to be said than what I've already said on gaps.

Look for opportunities where the character takes action toward the relationship goal, but it backfires. Peter Parker makes plans to propose to Mary Jane, to bring them closer together, but as the dinner goes on, his behavior is actually pushing her further away, until she dismisses herself.

In another situation, a character may be trying to push the other away, but it's actually making that person want to draw closer.

Whatever it is, it's different than what the character expected.

Crises in Relationship Plots

In the writing community, a crisis is also called a "dilemma." Two terms for the same concept.

A crisis is when the character has to make a choice between two opposing paths (cause-and-effect trajectories). And she can't have both.

The choice is difficult because each path has significant stakes

The crisis is a moment where we lay out the different pathways a plotline can go, depending on what the character chooses.

In structure, the crisis is often sandwiched between two mini turning points. The first pushes the character into a corner, and the second happens when she chooses her path.

In relationships, this is where it typically fits as well.

Recall my lengthy explanation of relationship turning points, which can be more or less summed up with this:

Action or Revelation --> Character A's Vulnerability --> Accepted or Rejected (or, Neglected) by Character B.

When Character A is vulnerable, there are at least two pathways for Character B:

1. Accept and/or draw closer.

2. Reject and/or push away.

A third option is neglect, which often works as a sort of lesser rejection, but may happen out of blindness, insecurity, and internal conflict, in addition to simply not wanting to accept.

At some turning points (particularly at the scene level, early in the story), the decision may be obvious, without major ramifications. But when you want a CRISIS (all caps), each option has significant stakes and costs tied to them.

If Sulley accepts Boo, then he's at risk of losing his job and being banished. If he rejects her, she'll be kidnapped and abused by Randall. Both paths have significant stakes, and neither sounds great.

If Winston accepts Julia, then he's putting them both at risk of being imprisoned and brainwashed. If he rejects her, he faces the horror of living life out as a pawn of the political machine, and never experiencing the pleasures of attraction.

If Scully accepts Mulder, she's at risk of losing her career, personal dreams, and life. If she rejects him, they'll never be able to uncover and reveal the truth of the government's cover-ups--they can't take on the antagonists.

If Obi-wan accepts Anakin in the end, Anakin will become a dangerous Sith Lord. If Obi-wan rejects him, he has to leave his "brother" to die.

So often it will look like this:

Action or Revelation --> Character A's Vulnerability --> Crisis --> Accepted or Rejected (or, Neglected) by Character B.

To take it a step further (or rather, backward), Character A's vulnerability may come from a prior crisis.

In our Harry Potter mountain troll example, the boys are only vulnerable to discipline because they chose to try to rescue Hermione. Before that, they had two options: rescue Hermione and risk danger and discipline, or turn a blind eye and risk her dying.

Similarly, when Mr. Darcy realizes he loves Elizabeth, he has two options: say something and risk rejection or say nothing and never have the chance to marry her. 

For these characters, it may not have really been much of a CRISIS in that they didn't have to think too long and hard about what to do, but it proves the point, and still works as a type of crisis in that there is a choice between two paths forward and each has stakes. And what they chose still reveals character. It's better to risk danger and death than let a peer die. It's better to say something and have the chance of marrying Elizabeth.

So it might be that you find both Character A and Character B experience a crisis (of one sort or another) near, or part of, a major turning point.

In that case, it might arguably be something like this:

Action or Revelation --> Crisis for Character A --> Character A's Vulnerability --> Crisis for Character B --> Accepted or Rejected (or, Neglected) by Character B.

But don't take this as a commandment. Not everything will work this way.

And that's about as far as I'm gonna go in relationship plots in regards to plot principles. Hopefully this has been as helpful to you as it has been to me! In a future post, I will talk about structuring them. Until my next article, 

Happy Writing! 

(Or shipping?)

Related Articles

The 4 Basic Types of Relationship Arcs

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Primary Principles

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Secondary Principles

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

What is a B Story? 6 Key Qualities of B Stories

Writing the Influence Character

Read Other Resources on Relationships

The Relationship Thesaurus Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at Writers Helping Writers

Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes

How to Write Three Types of Friendship Arcs by Mythcreants

Monday, November 14, 2022

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Secondary Principles

Developing a relationship plotline requires more than the relationship itself. It requires more than a relationship arc. It needs the proper elements of plot in place, otherwise it's not really a relationship plot

Whether the relationship plot in your story is about love interests, friends, coworkers, mentor and mentee, rivals, or even enemies, and whether it's the A Story, B Story, C Story, or even D Story, it needs to have the proper pieces to be a real Story.

The primary principles of plot are goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Last time, I covered how to apply these to relationships.

The relationship goal will be one of three things: draw closer and/or get along with this person, push away and/or cause dysfunction with this person, or maintain the relationship as is.

The antagonistic force will be what is in the way of the goal. If the character wants to draw closer to the other person, the antagonist pushes them away. If the character wants to be apart from this person, the antagonist pushes them together. If the character wants to maintain the relationship as is, the antagonist is what's disrupting "normal." In some cases, the other character in the relationship is the antagonist.

With the goal and the antagonistic force, the relationship plotline will have conflict. How the characters choose to address the conflict will usually create the arc.

And the conflicts only matter in that they have consequences. What do these characters have to gain or lose in being close? Or in being distant? Often the relationship consequences will affect other plotlines, or vice versa.

Today we will continue talking about relationship plot elements, by covering the secondary principles of plot: progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points. 

For a more in-depth explanation of these elements in general, check out my article on the secondary principles of plot.

Below, we will apply these elements to relationship plots.

Progress & Setbacks in Relationship Plots

Once upon a time, I was reading a very popular series, and when I got to the last book, the central relationship started driving me crazy. Every time the heroine was with her boyfriend they argued and argued and argued, but it didn't feel like they were getting anywhere. Their situation was, more or less, the same as it had been from the first argument. This created a circling sensation, which I've talked about before. It happens when a plotline isn't really progressing in one direction or the other (experiencing setbacks). I got to the point where I wished they would just break up. At least then things would be changing and evolving (or devolving).

In short, the relationship plotline wasn't experiencing any real progress or new setbacks. It was just hitting the same conflict over and over. If this has happened to you, don't fret--I've had the exact same problem in one of my manuscripts. Unless you write romance, most of us haven't been taught how to actually write a relationship plotline. And not knowing how to move a plotline forward is exactly what creates this circling sensation.

Remember what I've said in the past: Conflict without consequences is just cleverly disguised filler.

Just as with other plotlines, the relationship plotline needs to be changing, at least a little. As the characters are facing conflicts, they should either be growing closer or apart. And as with any plotline, there should be some of both (progress and setbacks).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has a great, simple example of this that stands out. Neither of the boys really likes Hermione at first, and Ron outright dislikes her. But the conflict of the mountain troll, and Hermione taking the blame after, cements the trio together. As Rowling simply writes: "There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them." Because of the conflict and what happens after, the characters grow closer together.

But anyone who has read the series knows they also experience a lot of setbacks--whether that's Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ron, or Harry and Hermione. At one point or another, each pair thought their relationship might be over.

What "progress" and "setbacks" look like in your relationship plotline will depend upon the goal, relationship type, and plotline itself. For most stories, though, ultimately drawing closer together appears as progress and being pushed apart is seen as a setback. Yet in a negative arc where the characters are genuinely trying to get away from each other, growing apart may be seen as progress, while being forced together appears as a setback.

Because what each character wants in the relationship can change, this can get complex. For example, if Ron doesn't want to be in a relationship with Hermione, isn't the mountain troll incident a setback? But it's the conflict itself that changes his want. Keep in mind: Every conflict has the chance to alter the goal. So it could be that one character decides from the conflict, that he now wants to be close to the other (or, alternatively, apart from her). If the antagonistic force is formidable enough, it will test the character's commitment to the relationship goal--in some cases the character will stay steadfast to the original goal, and in others, he will change that goal (like Ron does).

It's also worthwhile to point out that the audience may have a different point of view. In an enemies-to-lovers romance, the audience will see the enemies drawing closer together as progress, even when the enemies don't want to.

And if this is enough to make your head spin, let me simplify: The point is the conflicts and consequences are creating an ebb and flow of some kind, a zig-zag, through the story. We are going one direction. Then the opposite. Back and forth.

In contrast, circling isn't a zig-zag. It's repetitious, stagnant, and/or vague. The audience isn't sure what direction the relationship is going (or what the point is). Or worse, they don't discern the relationship going in any direction.

The zig-zag can even appear in unusual ways, with The Prestige being our ongoing atypical example. Because the negative steadfast relationship arc is also the A Story, and the participants in the relationship are opponents for each other, the ebb and flow manifest in whether or not one successfully outdoes the other. Sometimes Angier wins, and sometimes Borden wins. But it's a back-and-forth dance. It's a zig-zag.

We'll talk more about this zig-zag and dance in the future when structuring the relationship plotline.

Costs in Relationship Plots

Costs are what the character has to "pay" to move forward on the journey toward the goal. This may be physical and mental well-being, time, money, resources, or what have you. The most effective costs come out of the conflicts and consequences of the plot (as opposed to being random bad luck). This reinforces character agency and responsibility, which makes these costs more meaningful (and painful). (Read more about that here.)

While costs are important in any plotline, they can be particularly important in a relationship plotline. If a relationship has no costs, the characters didn't really have to struggle and sacrifice to be together (or, alternatively, apart), and it's the struggle and sacrifice that leads to a powerful relationship arc. The relationship isn't deep, meaningful, or personal without that. It's just surface-level. And the more difficult the journey, the sweeter the triumph. 

Generally speaking anyway. (Yes, as I always say, there are always exceptions.)

In any case, we don't want this journey--this relationship--to be built on nothing. Only by showing costs and sacrifices do we truly convey what this relationship means to the character. Pain-free relationships are easy. Pain-full? That is the refiner's fire.

So, what is the cost of the relationship in your story? What do these characters have to "pay"? What are they willing to sacrifice?

In many romances, this is nothing short of everything. The heroine may give up her career, her home, and her old life to be with the person she loves. But this can be true of non-romantic relationships as well. Sam is willing to risk drowning to be near Frodo. Sulley is willing to risk his career--which has meant everything to him--for Boo. Angier is willing to "kill himself" a hundred times to exact revenge on Borden.

Depending on the story you are writing, this may not be the case.

As I pointed out before, Katniss will not bend or accept Gale's worldview that innocent people are worth sacrificing for your own victory--that's the anti-theme of the whole series, so how could she? In some sense, to accept that is to ruin the theme and whole point. In this case, sacrificing the relationship is the cost of maintaining her own internal journey, her own character arc.

As the plotline progresses, the costs should become greater. The steeper and more personal, the more intense.

This is one of the reasons why I'm such a big Mulder and Scully fan. Their journey costs so much. Ironically, the characters never really have a true, typical "love confession," where they confess how deeply and irrevocably they love each other. But they don't need to. Because they show it. It's in the accumulation of costs. They risk careers, personal lives, safety. They lose loved ones. And surrender whole future trajectories, even very personal dreams. By the end of the original run, they've sacrificed just about everything to the X-Files and each other. They have something so much deeper than words or chemistry. They have years of action. They have proof.

Don't skimp out on costs. The most well-written dialogue, emotional responses, and physical descriptions will mean little to nothing if there is no proof--no action--behind them. Don't only say it. Show it.

* Just want to note that while not having the typical "love confession" trope worked for The X-Files, I'm NOT necessarily saying you should do the same thing. Depending on your story, genre, and relationship plotline, leaving that out could be a big no-no, making the reader feel cheated and frustrated. Always use good judgment. (And in fact, some criticize The X-Files for never really relieving the sexual tension on screen.)

Turning Points in Relationship Plots

I've said this a lot on my blog, but just in case you are new around here, I'll say it again:

A turning point works by (you guessed it) turning the direction of the plot.

This can only happen one of two ways (well, or both of them): a revelation, or an action. 

These are the only two ways to turn a plot.

Another way to look at them though, is . . . 

Revelation = Information

Action = Event

Sometimes that is more helpful.

In a relationship plotline, think of this as a "Point of No Return."

Let me explain.

At the most basic level, the character is either growing closer to this other person, or apart. (And if they want to maintain, something will disrupt that, so they will still be either drawing closer or further apart to try to get back to "normal.")

In a relationship, a turning point happens when it becomes impossible for the relationship to truly go back to what it was previously. The characters may try to go back, but it's never really the same. You can't undo a reveal. You can't undo an action.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy shares he's in love with Elizabeth and proposes to her. This is both a revelation and an action that can't be undone. It's a moment where Mr. Darcy moves closer to Elizabeth. In response, Elizabeth creates distance. She will never see Mr. Darcy the same way. Their relationship will never truly go back to what it was. It has become more personal.

Harry and Ron rescuing Hermione from the troll and then Hermione taking the blame? It's a turning point that draws them together. "There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other."

Scully approaching Mulder as she's struggling with infertility to ask if he'll be the donor for in-vitro? Whew! You don't come back from that one.

Let's go negative.

Palpatine saying that Obi-Wan Kenobi will need to be killed, and Anakin accepting? I think their brotherly love is on its way out. . . .

Gale being somewhat responsible for Prim's death? Goodbye Gale.

Angier sabotaging Borden's magic trick so that his fingers get shot off? Time to exact revenge.

Most relationship plotlines will actually have both positive and negative turning points--this is what helps create the zig-zag effect I talked about above. One turning point draws them closer together, and later, another one pushes them apart. Or however you like to look at the zig-zag for your story. For example, Hermione's tattle-telling on the boys pushes them apart, but then her taking the blame for the troll incident draws them together. We want both progress and setbacks.

Because the other plotlines can affect the relationship plotline, it gets a little more complicated than that, but I'll explain that more in a future post.

Relationship Turning Points: Vulnerability and Reaction

The turning point usually includes a moment of vulnerability. Mr. Darcy is being vulnerable by proposing to Elizabeth. Hermione opens herself up to punishment by covering for the boys. Scully has to risk the awkwardness or pain that might come if Mulder rejects her plea. Saying Obi-wan needs to die puts Obi-wan at more risk. And Gale has to tearfully apologize to the woman he loves.

Notice, too, that the reaction to the vulnerability moves the direction of the relationship. Elizabeth pushes Darcy away. Harry and Ron are shocked, pleased, and accepting of Hermione's sacrifice. Mulder agrees to Scully's offer (I mean, can you get much closer than being a possible baby daddy?). Anakin concedes Obi-wan must die. And Katniss rejects Gale.

When it comes to thrillers, Shawn Coyne talks about an obligatory scene called "Hero at the Mercy of the Villain." I think you know what it entails based on its name. While not the exact same thing, I like to think of the vulnerable moments in relationship plotlines as "Character A at the Mercy of Character B."

The moment works like this:

Action or Revelation --> Character A's Vulnerability --> Accepted or Rejected (or, Neglected) by Character B.

Because of an action(event) or revelation(information), Character A has a vulnerable moment. Character B gets to decide to accept it, reject it, or in some cases, neglect it (that last one isn't usually as powerful--I also think you can argue it's still a form of rejection, but I decided to mention it since it is a little different). That (often) creates the relationship turning point.

Let's look:

Mr. Darcy realizes he's in love with Elizabeth and consequently wants to marry her --> Sharing this, he proposes --> Elizabeth turns him down and pushes him away (rejected).

Scully learns she might have an opportunity to be a mom, but she needs a donor --> She asks Mulder to help --> Mulder agrees, drawing them closer (accepted).

If you want to get super technical, you can view these as two smaller turning points--one from each character: Character A becoming vulnerable because of an action or revelation is the first turning point; it puts the relationship in a crisis. Character B accepting or rejecting it will be rendered in an action(event) or revelation(info), creating the second turning point.

Generally speaking anyway. There are exceptions and variations. 

For example, at one point in Monsters Inc., Sulley scares a fake child for a simulation, and Boo has the revelation that he's a scary monster. Her fear makes her vulnerable. Sulley responds by trying to draw closer, but Boo doesn't want to be around him and pushes him away--she's scared of him. In this situation, the vulnerable person is doing the pushing. That can happen, particularly if the characters want different things (one wants to be close and the other wants to be apart). 

So, don't get so technical that you never allow room for exceptions and variations. The turning point is meant to turn the relationship--that's the main function.

We talk about rules of thumb in order to lay a foundation to allow us to see and understand what's common, as well as what's a variation.

Also, just as a note "Character A" and "Character B" can be either character in the relationship. Sometimes Scully is the vulnerable one, and other times Mulder is. For most relationships, each will have vulnerable moments. 

However, that may not be appropriate for all relationships, and so it may lean one direction. Boo, a toddler, is going to be more vulnerable and need more help from Sulley, than Sulley is going to be vulnerable and need Boo's help. And the turning points with her are more likely to function a little differently, because she's so young, naive, and oblivious.

Voluntary Vulnerability vs. Forced Vulnerability

In my earlier examples, Mr. Darcy and Scully are willingly vulnerable in front of Elizabeth and Mulder. They chose to put themselves on the line.

But vulnerable moments can be forced upon Character A, by external forces, other people, or even Character B.

Frodo didn't want to be attacked by a giant spider. Shelob forced him into a vulnerable state.

Obi-wan didn't offer to die for Palpatine's plans. Palpatine made him vulnerable by making him a target.

Likewise, Borden didn't want a gun pointed at him, but Angier (Character B) points one at him, forcing him into a state of vulnerability.

Often (though not always) in romances, there is a forced vulnerability in the meet cute, where Character A looks weak or like an idiot in front of Character B. Common meet cute tropes are that Character A trips or accidentally scatters a bunch of papers in front of Character B.

Worth noting is that Character A doesn't always need to be physically present, as we see with Obi-wan. This will (obviously) look slightly different in the scene. (For example, Anakin is agreeing that Obi-wan needs to die, but by doing that, he's rejecting Obi-wan's vulnerability). It's also possible that Character B reacts one way in public and another way in private--this brings in some complexity. Though, what happens in private is usually the most accurate tell of what direction the relationship is going. 

Types of Vulnerability

The vulnerability need not always be psychological, like it is for Mr. Darcy and Scully; it can simply be physical, like it is for Bordon. 

The point is, one character is made vulnerable and is now at the mercy of the other.

It's helpful to turn to James Scott Bell's three types of death to look at options for vulnerability:

Psychological (emotional, intellectual, identity, one's old self . . . )

Professional (vocational)

Physical (this is obviouly the risk of literal death or physical harm 😉, but for relationships, I might would add literally taking off clothes--being naked, or closer to it, is often a vulnerable thing (whether or not there is sexual attraction), depending on how it is handled. Being in a state of physical rest, like sleeping, or healing, is also a form of vulnerability.)

In the troll incident, Hermione taking the blame risks professional death--she may be disciplined or expelled as a student (her vocation). 

And in the above example, Obi-wan is at risk of physical death.

Escalating Turning Points

The turning points influence the relationship arc and should get more intense as the story progresses. At the relationship plotline's climax, just like in the thriller, one character should be at (arguably) his most vulnerable state, and be either accepted or rejected (or in some cases, simply neglected) by the other character.

You've seen this a gazillion times in romance. One character makes a final climactic grand gesture to lay it all out on the table, to stand (figuratively) naked in front of the other person, who will then accept or reject (spoiler: it's romance, so she will accept) the person.

In another story, this moment may be simply physical, where one character is dying and needs the other character's help or mercy, such as Anakin dying after the final battle with Obi-wan. Obi-wan neglects (and in that sense, rejects) helping him, ending the relationship for good. (And in comparison, Palpatine accepts, saving him, and that fully cements their relationship.)

In a positive relationship arc, it's often more effective if the climactic vulnerable moment is voluntary. It must be in the romance genre, because the positive relationship arc is the primary plotline, so needs to be driven by choice. So, typically, Character A voluntarily risks psychological death by dropping all shields and standing "bare" before Character B (and maybe others).

And even if the vulnerability is physical, it can still be rendered voluntarily--such as Character A choosing to make a sacrifice that results in injury or potential death.

Exactly how the turning points will manifest concretely in your story, will depend upon the genre, the prominence of the plotline, the relationship, and the arc.

In an enemies-to-lovers relationship arc, you may start with involuntary vulnerability that gets rejected, then end with voluntary vulnerability that gets accepted.

The main idea is that there is an overall escalation. At each major vulnerable moment (turning point), one character is seeing another side to the other character they haven't seen before, or, at least, a deeper layer of the same side, and they've never seen that deep before. They haven't seen that type of vulnerability, or, they haven't seen it to that extent. The layers are coming off as they get to know this person to the core. And this makes it impossible to go back to "normal."

This can even be true of rivals or enemies--Angier is even more obsessive and revengeful than Borden ever imagined.

That's how it usually works anyway. It's not the only way to do things. For example, theoretically, you could have the character put more and more layers on and become more and more of a stranger--but even from that perspective, one character is likely seeing "another side" of the other person they haven't before--a fake, inauthentic, "public" side, that must be a sign of a deeper, more personal motive.

This is where I channel Brandon Sanderson again and say, we are chefs, not cooks. But we need to understand how a recipe works before we get fancy with our own.

One last thing I wanted to mention here, is that you can also look at turning points and escalation as a zig-zag of trust vs. distrust--by the end, positive relationship characters trust each other more (because of the acceptance of vulnerable moments), while negative relationship characters trust each other less (because of rejections of vulnerable moments).

Multiple Moments of Vulnerability

While turning points often have one character vulnerable, it's also possible to set them up so that both characters are vulnerable and both react to each other. It's also possible that there are multiple types and points of vulnerability. 

In my earlier troll example, Hermione is first physically vulnerable because the troll is attacking her. The boys can decide to help (accept) or not (reject). By accepting to help, they become vulnerable, and then are at risk of getting disciplined or being expelled. Hermione helps (accepts) by putting herself on the line for them and taking the blame--a professional vulnerability--and this cements their friendship together (the boys accept her).

Relationship Arc Labels and Turning Points

If you labeled the progression of your relationship arc as I mentioned at the start of this series, it's likely that each phase is separated by a significant turning point. For example, at the very first turning point, they became enemies, but at the next major turning point, they became friends, and at the next major turning point they became lovers, etc. 

Creating Mini-twists in Turning Points

You can create a mini-twist in turning points by making it seem like Character B will react one way, then have B act the opposite. For example, in danger of dying, Character A may look to Character B for mercy . . . only to have Character B stab her. Character A expected acceptance, but received rejection. This creates a gap. Alternatively, Character A may reveal she loves Character B, and expect a rejection, only to have Character B move in for a kiss.

You can also play up both options prior to make Character B's potential reaction more ambiguous, increasing the tension and suspense. The audience doesn't know which reaction B will choose.

A Quick Note on Rejections

We often see rejection as a bad thing, especially in relationship arcs. While it can certainly feel bad, it's not necessarily innately bad. Everyone has boundaries that shouldn't be crossed and people shouldn't be disrespected (or even abused).

Rejection might be the right thing, because it means staying true to personal beliefs, like when Katniss rejects Gale. It might be the best thing, because it's what's necessary for the health and safety of society, like Obi-wan rejecting Anakin. It might be the right thing because Character B has a bigger external or internal journey to take, and needs to choose responsibility over a relationship.

A Quick Note on Neglect

While not as "zig-zaggy" in a relationship plot, neglect may likewise be the best option. Neglecting vulnerability is, in a way, a form of rejection--but it's a lesser form. It may be that Character B still cares and respects the person, but can't accept them. Character B may not necessarily want to push A far away. So instead, B does nothing. It could be for the same reasons listed in the above section. There are some lines Character B just can't cross. 

Alternatively, it may even just be that Character B is blind, insecure, or conflicted, so doesn't accept or reject, only neglects. Again, there are a lot of options.

Turning points will change the trajectory of the relationship. They also keep the relationship from feeling stagnant or repetitious ("circling"). This is because they will lead to progress or a setback. 

They also connect into costs, as the vulnerability is often a cost, or comes from a cost, and how the other character responds may imply a cost.

We'll talk about turning points and all of this more as we go on.

And for what it's worth, please keep in mind this is a discussion of relationships in stories. I'm not an expert on real relationships, and would hate if I caused some kind of damage by having people try to apply these principles to real life. I'm not saying they don't overlap--they do! But at the same time . . .  stories aren't real life.

Next time, I'll finish up the plot elements for relationships (See? I promised you I wouldn't redo my entire Principles of Plot series.). 

Until then . . . keep your protagonist's friends and enemies close . . . or not . . . I'll let you decide ;)

Continue to "Writing Relationships into Plots: Tertiary Principles" -->

Related Articles

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots (Part 1)

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

The 4 Basic Types of Relationship Arcs

Writing the Influence Character

Read Other Resources on Relationships

The Relationship Arc by Ross Hartmann at Kiingo

Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes