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Monday, October 24, 2022

Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Primary Principles

Most stories will feature a relationship arc as a key plotline. But in order for a relationship to be a plotline, it not only needs an arc, it needs a plot

Showcasing an amusing friendship or a fiery rivalry, or throwing in a love triangle or family feud here and there doesn't make it a plotline any more than having an entertaining protagonist doing random things makes a plotline.

You can have ideas for a riveting relationship, but if it isn't arcing because of the story, it's probably just cleverly disguised "plot" filler.

We usually don't want a protagonist without an arc doing random things. That's not really the protagonist's story.

The same is true with relationships.

Now, real quick, not all relationships in a story will need a plot--that would be near impossible, overdramatic, and would read as soap opera.

This is one of the reasons why there is a difference between a relationship arc and a relationship plotline

Recently I did an article on the four basic relationship arcs. For convenience here is a quick recap:

Positive Change Relationship Arc: 

The characters start distant--they may be strangers or downright enemies--and grow closer in love and respect.

Ex. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Mulder and Scully, Sulley and Boo

Positive Steadfast Relationship Arc:

The characters start close--already having some love and respect for each other--and have their relationship tested through the obstacles of the plot. Ultimately, they stand by one another at the end; often their love and respect grow by degree.

Ex. Frodo and Sam, Harry and Dumbledore (in book 7), Peter Parker and Mary Jane (depending on the rendition)

Negative Change Relationship Arc:

The characters start close with love and respect and are ultimately pulled apart and become distant, as strangers or enemies. They grow in dislike or disrespect for each other.

Ex. Anakin and Obi-wan (in Revenge of the Sith), Mike and Will (Stranger Things seasons 1 - 4), Katniss and Gale (in The Hunger Games).

Negative Steadfast Relationship Arc:

The characters start distant--as strangers or enemies--and might be pushed together through the plot, but ultimately won't stand by one another at the end. In the end, they are strangers or enemies. Often their dislike and disrespect will grow by degree.

Ex. Winston and Julia in 1984, Angier and Borden in The Prestige, Estella and the Baronness in Cruella

These are just basic relationship arcs and there is room for variations, so don't panic if yours doesn't fit any description perfectly. However, it should, more or less, be able to fit into one of them, which can be useful to get started.

Now we need to take some time to address plotlines, because how much you develop your relationship plotline will depend on how prominent it is. And the more prominent, the more it needs to be on the page. So hang with me as we cover some bases.

Relationship Plots for A Stories, B Stories, C Stories & More

Usually a relationship plotline is a key plotline, but where it fits in priority isn't the same for every story or even every genre. 

Most stories, specifically long stories (a novel as opposed to a short story), will have at least three kinds of plotlines. The most popular combo is this: the protagonist's external journey, the protagonist's internal journey, and the protagonist's relationship journey (with the Influence Character). This is a great combo, because it has a broad conflict (the external journey), a deeply personal conflict (the internal journey), and something that fits between those (the relationship journey)--giving the story clear dimension.

However, with that said, you can create other combos as well. For example, sometimes there is a world/society plotline, and no internal journey. So while a relationship plotline is key to most stories, I'm not gonna say it's key for every single story (despite what some say in the community).

If you are reading this article, you obviously want to learn more about writing relationship plotlines. At this point, it's a good idea for us to take our usual pit stop and talk a little bit about terminology in the writing industry.

Some in the industry actually lump together the protagonist's internal and external journey and call the weave the "A Story," or the primary plot. 

With this in mind, often the relationship plotline is considered the "B Story, " meaning it's the secondary plot that unfolds, more or less, alongside the A Story.

Some people in the community use the term "B Story" synonymously with "relationship plotline." In truth, not all B Stories are relationship plotlines, and not all relationship plotlines are B Stories. That's just what is most common.

In some narratives, the relationship journey is the A Story--the main plotline. This happens when the story is primarily about a relationship. The most obvious examples of this would come from the romance genre. Pride and Prejudice is primarily about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's relationship journey. 

But this doesn't mean you have to write a romance novel to write a relationship A Story. In The Prestige, the whole story is driven by Angier and Borden trying to undo or outdo each other. The A Story is a relationship plotline about a negative relationship.

So there are a lot of options in regard to plotlines.

But whether the relationship journey is the A Story, B Story, C Story, or what have you, it still needs to have an arc and plot to be a Story. It's just that the less prominent the plotline, the less you need to develop it and show it on the page.

In contrast to a romance, The X-Files is more about the external journey and the internal journeys of each of the leads, than it is about Mulder and Scully's relationship. That doesn't mean their relationship journey isn't impactful (far from it). But less of that plotline makes up screen time . . . with the relationship arc stretched out over nearly a decade. If it had been the A Story, it wouldn't have been The X-Files, and it wouldn't have survived as perhaps the slowest burn in television.

Whether your characters' relationship journey is the A Story, B Story, C Story, or what have you, that's ultimately what we want: something impactful.

So let's dig into plot.

How Do You Write Relationship Plots in a Story?

Some of the problems that can come up with relationship plotlines stem from the writer not understanding that even though this journey appears quite different than the external or internal journeys, it still follows basic principles.

But if you don't write romance, this may be difficult to wrap your head around . . . because there are almost no resources to teach you how to do it! 

People will mention relationship plotlines, but they'll be vague or general about it--or say it has to be a romance or that it must be a positive change relationship arc. It doesn't. But for this reason, this plotline has often felt vague to me, personally. If I'm not writing romance--what am I supposed to be doing here? And how?

Let's start with the basics and feed the relationship journey into them.

I already did a long and lengthy series on the principles of plot, so I won't be repeating the details of each element (nor will I be going through every element for this). This means if you are confused or need more information, you should look through the series, starting here.

Keep your relationship arc in mind as we go through the pieces, and soon it will become clearer and clearer how to write a relationship plot.

The Goal in Relationship Plots

Plot starts with a goal. This is because a goal provides context for plot. Until there is a goal, what happens doesn't really matter, since no one is trying to get anywhere. And the audience can't measure whether what happens is progress or a setback.

We know characters should have external, measurable goals. And even if they have abstract wants, they should manifest in concrete goals.

Not all characters keep the same goals for the whole story. In fact, some characters will have a different goal for each act (I'm looking at you, Star Wars IV: A New Hope). And some will have both an overarching goal and act-level goals inside it.

This can be applied to relationship plotlines. In fact, it's highly likely the relationship goal will change through the story (and often on the act level).

At the most basic, abstract level, there are only three goals your characters can have in a relationship, and they may not be the same as the other person's.

The 3 Basic Relationship Goals:

1. Draw closer and/or get along with this person

2. Push away and/or cause dysfunction with this person

3. Maintain the relationship as is

Worth noting is that the last one will likely turn into one of the other two, because something will disrupt "normal," and the character will either be trying to draw closer or push away in order to get "normal" back.

At this point, some of you may already be confused. My characters want to get along to get the plot goal, but they also hate each other and want to push each other away! you may be thinking.

Don't panic.

The relationship plotline is usually intimately woven with the external and internal plotlines

Remember what I said earlier? It fits below the external plotline and above the internal plotline.

This means what happens externally will trickle down and complicate the relationship, while what happens internally will bubble up and complicate the relationship.

This is one of the reasons the relationship plotline can feel tricky and vague, especially if it's not the A Story.

Just focus on the relationship itself. Does the character want to draw closer to this person? Or does she want to be distant from this person? Or does she want to keep things the way they already are?

Relationship Goal Examples (Basic):

Elizabeth judges Mr. Darcy unfavorably--she wants to be distant from him through more than half the book.

Scully wants to get to know Mulder, despite his poor reputation in the FBI.

Sulley is afraid of Boo. He wants to send her away from him and Monstropolis.

Sam wants to follow, be near, and support Frodo.

Peter wants to be in a relationship with Mary Jane.

Will hopes to maintain a close bond with Mike . . . and maybe draw even closer.

While attracted to Julia, Winston thinks she's a spy and hates her (this one is a little more complicated, and that's okay).

Estella wants to work for and be like the Baroness.

Notice that the other person in the relationship may not have the same want. . . .

Mr. Darcy falls for and wants to marry Elizabeth.

Frodo doesn't want Sam to bear his burdens, so tries to create distance.

Mike isn't interested in maintaining a relationship with Will and is blind to Will's efforts (also a little more complicated)

Julia wants to be involved with Winston (which changes his relationship goal).

And sometimes the participants do have the same wants. . . .

Mary Jane wants to be close to Peter.

Despite being suspicious Scully is there to spy on him, Mulder is ultimately fine with opening up to her--after all, his purpose in life is to reveal the truth.

Angier and Borden are trying to push the other further away by outdoing each other and creating more dysfunction.

Gale and Katniss would prefer to be close (though at some parts, Katniss is only interested in maintenance)

As you can already see at the basic level, things aren't always simple, and again, wants can change, but we are just getting some basics down to build from.

You'll also notice that while the goals will play into how the relationship arcs on the page, they aren't determined by the relationship arc. Strangers can want to get close. Enemies may want to mend their ways. Friends may want to draw close or part ways. And each person may want something different.

The basic goals are the characters' desires. And the arc is what happens in reality.

Just as with external plotline goals, it's helpful if we get more concrete and specific. This will make the plotline stronger and allow the audience to better measure progress. So, consider, what does "success" in this relationship look like to the character? Darcy wedding Elizabeth? Boo being thrown back to where she came from? Mike accepting Will's gift and playing D&D with him? Winston and Julia having a secret rendezvous? Keeping Sam away from the Ring? Angier besting Borden in magic? Scully making sure Mulder makes it back in one piece to D.C. (and vice versa)?

It's important to realize that what success looks like may be influenced by the external and/or internal journeys. The external journey informs Scully what success in her relationship with Mulder looks like. It determines what Sulley's goal is for Boo. The internal journey informs Will what success looks like with Mike. It determines why Frodo wants to keep Sam away from the Ring.

So, look at each participant in the relationship--do they want to grow closer or apart? (Or maintain?) What does "success" look like in this relationship, to each participant?

The Antagonistic Force in Relationship Plots

The antagonistic force is a form of opposition. I emphasize "opposition" because the antagonistic force is something in the way of the goal

We know what the characters want. And we know what success looks like. 

What is keeping the characters from simply getting that? (Or, in some cases, maintaining that?)

That's the antagonistic force. And just like the goal, it doesn't need to be one thing, and it doesn't need to be the same thing throughout the whole relationship plotline. If you think of the antagonistic force as the obstacle in the way of or resistance to getting the goal, you'll have both a broader and more accurate understanding of what an antagonistic force really is. Or likely, forces

For relationships, the antagonistic forces can come from several places.

The 3 Sources for Relationship Antagonists:

1. External: What's happening externally may trickle down and get in the way of the relationship goal. For example, two characters may wish to live their lives separately (or may even be enemies), but external circumstances force them together. This is common in the enemies to friends/lovers arc. In these situations, often there is a shared external plotline goal that the characters have to work together to achieve.

In contrast, you may have two characters who want to be close, but external forces are pulling them apart. In 1984, Winston and Julia want to be together in Acts II and III, but the Party wants them separated. You can see a similar thing in Romeo & Juliet.

And just as a note, even if the characters have different relationship goals, you can still have external antagonistic forces--it just gets a little more complex.

2. Within the Relationship: Antagonistic forces may come from the relationship itself. The characters may have opposing goals or methodologies or worldviews or mannerisms that clash.

Sam wants to be near Frodo. But Frodo tries to lose Sam. (Opposing goals.) Sam wants to ditch Smeagol, but Frodo wants to use him as a guide. (Opposing methods.) Untempted by and unexperienced with the Ring, Sam doesn't share compassion for Smeagol. Frodo, who suffers from both, pities him. (Opposing worldviews.)

Neither character is necessarily "good" or "bad" (though you can do that if you want). They're just different, and this creates obstacles. 

It's usually very common for the protagonist and Influence Character to have opposing methodologies.

3. Internal: One or both participants may have internal struggles, flaws, or misbeliefs that bubble up into the relationship plotline. 

In Sherlock, Sherlock's inability to be socially sensitive causes problems in all of his relationships. In Pride and Prejudice, it's pride and prejudice that often cause problems. Frodo's personal struggle with the Ring creates friction with Sam.

One familiar trope is that one character feels undeserving or unworthy of the other character, because of how he views himself--Edward does this sort of thing in Twilight.

Weaving All Three

Remember, just as the external and internal journeys influence each other, so do they influence the relationship plotline. When we weave three different plotlines, it can get complicated. Or perhaps more accurately said, complex

For example, in The Hunger Games, one may argue that the antagonistic forces that ultimately drive Katniss and Gale apart come from all three places. The external plotline pulls them apart by not only creating literal distance, but emotional distance, as Katniss has to leave District 12 and pretend to be in love with Peeta. 

Their relationship pulls them apart because they have different worldviews and methodologies. Gale wants to incite a revolution and overthrow the Capitol, whatever the cost. Katniss wants to survive and keep her loved ones safe. 

In the internal sense, Katniss has so much going on inside her, that she doesn't have the time or wherewithal to focus on her relationship with Gale. And Gale is moving closer and closer to the anti-theme.

With that said, please don't give yourself "paralysis by analysis." You don't need to overthink the relationship plotline. The point is that you need antagonistic forces to create a relationship plotline. Those forces can come from any of those three places, or a combination of them. So if you need more (or don't have any), those are the areas to go looking. This can be especially helpful when both participants want the same "success" for the relationship--you'll need to look at external or internal obstacles.

It's Complicated

Certain setups are more complex, or at least more uncommon, than others. And I just want to acknowledge and illustrate that, so we don't get stuck thinking everything in writing needs to fit a specific mold.

In The Prestige, the A Story is a negative arc relationship between Angier and Borden. They don't want to be pals. Angier's goal is to undo Borden and best him in magic. This is informed by Angier's internal journey of obsessive revenge (also a negative arc). But Borden is also the antagonist--because he doesn't want to be undone and have his life ruined, and so fights back. They are the main obstacles for each other.

This is an atypical situation, but you'll see it has the same parts: a relationship goal and an antagonist, and of course, a relationship arc.

As Brandon Sanderson likes to say, as writers, we want to be chefs, not cooks. We want to understand the parts, and be able to arrange them in different ways to create the story we want--not follow the same recipe every time. The Prestige is a great example of that, in regard to relationship plotlines.

The Relationship Antagonist Simplified

For most stories, the antagonist will work like this:

If the character wants to draw closer, the antagonistic force is what's keeping them apart.

If the character wants to grow apart, the antagonistic force is what's pushing them closer.

If the character wants to maintain, then the antagonistic force is what's disrupting normal.

* Sometimes the antagonistic force is the other person in the relationship.

IMPORTANT: Beware of Weak Antagonistic Forces!

We've all seen relationship plotlines that made us roll our eyes, or worse, want to scratch out the writer's eyes. This is most obvious in sequels. It usually happens like this:

In the first installment, the writers create a positive change relationship arc, where the participants become best friends, found family, or significant others--and we all let out a satisfying sigh.

In the second installment, the writers don't know how else to arc a relationship, so they try to undo and redo what they already did.

It usually fails.

Other times the writers understand on some level they need to create a positive steadfast relationship arc, but don't know how to really do that, so they put together one that has about as much depth and emotion as a cardboard cut-out.

And finally, there is the relationship "plotline" that could be easily resolved by something that the characters seem too stupid to do, such as make a simple phone call.

These situations stem from the same problem: weak or unbelievable(derogatory) antagonistic forces.

If Sulley and Boo overcame all the adversity of Monsters Inc. and then we did a follow-up where they had an argument about bedtime, and we used that as a driving force to pull them apart (so we can push them back together again), it'd be stupid. The audience already watched them survive way worse. They know their bond is stronger than that.

Now, if the argument about bedtime was really subtext for deeper issues and those are going to be the driving force, and the issues are going to manifest in a lot of different ways, then maybe something like that would work.

Otherwise? The audience doesn't buy it.

The antagonist needs to be a real, powerful threat. If the characters already have a strong relationship that has been through the wringer, what could believably fray that? (And the answer can't be a simple misunderstanding.) It needs to be greater than what they've already overcome. Or, it needs to be different and just as difficult. Or, it needs to be long-lasting but still as significant. Look at the different places antagonistic forces can come from--that might help you find something you hadn't considered before. Or maybe, you need a combination of antagonistic forces to create a worthy threat. 

Often (like I touched on above), rather than think of one thing or one moment that is causing problems in the relationship, it's better to find something abstract that manifests in different concrete ways. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, both pride and prejudice are abstract concepts, but they manifest concretely in different ways throughout the story to create problems. The issue isn't so much that the ladies have no one to dance with, and that Mr. Darcy should be dancing with one. The real underlying issue is the pride Mr. Darcy seems to have.

Whatever the story, it's helpful to remember that the antagonistic force should be big enough to test the characters' commitments to the relationship goal (which will lead them to either change the goal or hold steadfast to it). This can be particularly important for positive steadfast relationships. Sulley and Boo arguing about bedtime isn't a "test." It's a disagreement.

The Conflict in Relationship Plots

The relationship goal and the antagonistic force lead to conflict. These characters hate each other and want to be apart, but the external antagonist locks them together. . . . and when they finally decide they want to be together, the external antagonist yanks them apart. Or maybe one person wants to draw close and the other wants to push away. Or maybe they both want to be together, but one is crippled by a sense of unworthiness.

There are a lot of directions you can go with this, but I think you get the idea.

There shouldn't be an easy, foreseeable way to fix these situations--because the antagonist should be a real threat (see above). So we get conflict.

The more the characters want the relationship goal and the stronger the antagonist, the bigger the struggle. And struggle is often what creates a powerful arc. As the characters face worthy opposition in conflict, we illustrate how bad they want the relationship goal. We confront them with difficult situations--choices--that require sacrifice of one kind or another. How devoted are they to their relationship goal? What costs are they willing to pay? Is he willing to risk drowning to follow Frodo? Is she willing to sacrifice her career reputation and give up personal dreams to get her FBI partner back safely? Is he willing to risk torture and brainwashing at the hands of the Party to be with Julia? 

How the characters choose to address the conflict will usually create the arc in the plotline. Ultimately, nothing stops Sam from helping Frodo--this leads to their positive relationship arc. We know, Sam is in it 100%. On the other hand, Katniss won't agree that sacrificing innocent people like Prim is worth a victory for the self, so she ends her relationship with Gale. This leads to their negative relationship arc. Notice, however, this doesn't mean Katniss is a "bad" person by any means. It simply illustrates that upholding the thematic argument means more to her than this relationship.

And never forget that other plotlines weave in. An external plotline victory may mean sacrificing a relationship goal. Or it may mean succeeding in the relationship enables success in the external goal. And internal victory may mean success or failure in a relationship goal. There are so many different combinations, I fear listing them may create more confusion rather than clarity. 

But just to show how this can be done in an atypical way, in The Prestige, the relationship goal is to undo, best, and push away the other magician, who is resisting and fighting back (as the antagonist). This leads to powerful conflict. What is the character willing to do to succeed? Angier is ultimately willing to frame his enemy, get him hanged, steal away his daughter, and kill "himself" a hundred times to possibly succeed in this negative relationship arc. But he fails in an internal way: He's so obsessed with revenge, so unwilling to change internally, that he failed as a human being and missed out on developing new meaningful relationships. (. . . and this all starts to bleed into the want vs. need concept . . . . and I think I'll save that for another day, in regards to relationships (I promised not to get confusing)).

The point is the conflict creates struggles that show what the characters are willing or unwilling to do for the relationship goal, and their choices will ultimately arc the relationship in the plotline.

The Consequences in Relationship Plots

In order for there to be a strong plotline, there need to be consequences to the conflicts' outcomes. Otherwise, it's just conflict for the sake of conflict.

Now, with that said, conflict for the sake of conflict can sometimes work in relationships for things like banter and disagreements. Those can be effective and fun, but remember, they aren't what make up a strong relationship plotline. Don't confuse banter or disagreements as the sum of a relationship plotline. It may be part of a plotline--the banter may stem from antagonistic forces within the relationship that the characters need to overcome--but it's not the plotline itself. In order to be part of the plotline, it needs to have significant consequences, like any good conflict should have.

Plot isn't just random stuff strung together. It has a sense of cause and effect.

So, what do the characters have to gain (and/or lose) in overcoming the conflict? What do they have to lose (and/or gain) in being overcome by the conflict?

If we are strictly focused on the relationship plotline, this may seem rather simple, as it is often the relationship or relationship goal itself. If Elizabeth overcomes the obstacles between her and Mr. Darcy, they can get married. If she doesn't, she won't be with the person she loves. If Sherlock and John can work through their differences and struggles, they can be best friends. If Katniss and Gale can't, they will become strangers. If Angier succeeds, he successfully punishes Borden.

But ideally, the consequences will bleed into other plotlines. If Harry's relationship with Dumbledore is ruined, Harry won't continue to hunt for Horcruxes. In Death Note, if Light succeeds in besting L, he can continue his plans of exacting justice and creating a new world, where he is the leader.

Commonly, the relationship characters need to work together to reach the external goal. In Moana, Moana and Maui ultimately need each other to right the world--neither can do it alone. Frodo and Sam's relationship needs to work to bring the Ring to Mount Doom. Mulder can't succeed in uncovering the truth of government conspiracy and experimentation without Scully by his side.

And of course, it can bleed into the internal plotline. Once Winston betrays Julia, it means that the Party has successfully brainwashed him--he is no longer a free-thinker but part of mass psychosis. 

Not only will the relationship likely affect the consequences of other plotlines, but the other plotlines will likely bring consequences into the relationship.

Just make sure the consequences are there, and that they are significant. They need to be important enough to shift the direction of the story. This will help the audience know why this relationship matters. And as a reminder . . .

Stakes = potential consequences (projecting cause and effect into the future)

Ramifications = actual consequences

Conflict in relationships without any outcomes isn't really a story.

A relationship plotline is meant to be a Story

We'll delve more into relationship plots next time.

Continue to "Writing Relationship Arcs into Plots: Secondary Principles" (Sample) -->

Related Articles

The 4 Basic Types of Relationship Arcs

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

Writing the Influence Character

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

Writing Relationships Readers can't Resist

Read Other Resources on Relationships

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

Seven External Plots for Relationship-Centered Stories by Chris Winkle at Mythcreants

How Relatable Character Relationships Will Make or Break Your Story by Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice


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