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Monday, April 22, 2019

How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly

I was once reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. Many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical Hero’s Journey plot. But perhaps even more stories (and often including even the Hero’s Journey to some extent) revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.

Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.

Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods to help with that.

1. Communicate What’s Normal. 

Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered, and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.

2. Refer to or Imply an Off-Page History. 

Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.” For example, every Saturday they happened to both be at the dog park, and that’s how they became friends (or enemies).

3. Have a Character Predict How the Other Will Behave or React. 

This immediately conveys that these two people know each other very well. Again, it can be more reoccurring: “Samantha always got cranky when she ran out of chocolate.” Or a specific moment: “I could already picture Monica’s eye roll before I delivered the news.”

4. If the Relationship is Long-Term, Give Us a Sense of How it has Changed. 

A lot can change between first falling in love and being married for ten years. Whether it’s a friendship, partnership, or even an enemy, naturally there will be some degree of growth or at least change. Give us a glimpse of how the relationship we see on the page now is different than it was before.

5. Round out Likeness with Foiling, or Opposition with Likeness. 

One of the mistakes that is easy to make is to have participants in a positive relationship exactly the same, or participants in a negative relationship exactly opposites. But almost nothing can make a relationship feel more authentic and well-rounded quicker than having some of both. This means that even two best friends should disagree with or dislike each other to some extent, in some aspect. It’s better if you can even make them opposites in some way. On the other hand, with an enemy, there should be some similarity and likeness between the characters, maybe even admiration (even if the viewpoint character doesn’t want to admit it). This will immediately make the relationship feel more complex.

For a more in-depth look at these some of these points and at creating powerful positive relationships between characters, check out my article "Creating Relationships Readers Can't Resist."


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