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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.)

The Meet Cute

The term "meet cute" comes from romance, and it's essentially what it sounds like. It's when the love interests meet, usually in a memorably cute way. Common (and cliche) tropes of this include Character A dropping all her papers so Character B can help her pick them up, or Character A being clumsy and/or tripping in front of Character B.

I've talked about meet cutes before, and have related it to other types of relationships, so here, I'm going to expand it to that. When I read Romancing the Beat, I was happy to see that Gwen Hayes was fine with expanding the definition as well. Hayes talks about how, even if the characters already know each other before the story starts, the Meet Cute beat is the first time the audience sees them on the page together. 

Regardless of what the relationship is or how long it's been going, we want to use this beat to convey where the characters stand with each other. Are they strangers meeting for the first time? Sworn enemies and rivals? Siblings turned best friends? If you are working with a relationship that started before the story, you can check out "How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly" for some tips.

As long as the Meet Cute conveys where the characters stand, some feel that it does not need to be fancy or original. It can happen when one character hails a taxi. It can happen when Character A accidentally shuts the door on Character B.

While this surely can fulfill the Meet Cute function fine, I sometimes feel that settling on something trite is a missed opportunity (unless, of course, triteness is the point). Just as we want a strong characteristic moment to introduce our protagonists, we should--ideally--aim for a strong, individualized Meet Cute to introduce the central relationship. Consider: What makes this relationship special? What makes these characters unique? 

I like it when the writer goes beyond a "stock" Meet Cute. When Sherlock and John meet, Sherlock uses his classic reasoning of deduction to figure John out. That's a meeting only Sherlock can have. It's not a stock meeting. It also does double duty by showing off Sherlock's character. 

In Monsters Inc., Sulley and Boo have their own unique Meet Cute. Sulley is terrified of her, and she's only a happy, excited toddler. We immediately know where the characters stand with each other.

Is the Meet Cute the Inciting Incident?

There is some debate as to whether or not the Meet Cute is the inciting incident of the relationship plotline. I think this depends on how the Meet Cute goes.

Let's remember that an inciting incident is a (medium-sized) turning point that disrupts the established normal, sending the plotline in a new direction.

Does the Meet Cute do that?

If the answer is "yes," then it's also the inciting incident.

If the answer is "no," then the inciting incident probably comes later.

In relationships, a turning point is often marked by a vulnerable moment (i.e. Character A tripping, Character A dropping all her papers, Character A having the door slammed on her), followed by Character B's reaction to it (accept, reject, or neglect). If your Meet Cute has that, chances are it's the inciting incident (especially if Character B's response is something that hasn't happened before).

With that said, sometimes a writer can use a vulnerable moment to convey where the relationship currently is, so it doesn't really change any major trajectories. . . . There are definitely some gray areas. 

The inciting incident is usually seen as an opportunity or a problem (or both) for the protagonist. If a character wants to draw closer to another character at this point, then it's an "opportunity." If a character wants to create distance, then it's a "problem."

So, if your Meet Cute is disrupting normal and sending the relationship plotline in a new direction, it's probably the inciting incident. Even if the characters already know each other. 

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam have (arguably) a Meet Cute when Gandalf finds Sam and accuses him of eavesdropping (notice this puts Sam in a vulnerable position). Rather than ultimately turn him away, Gandalf and Frodo accept and partner him with Frodo--this kicks off their relationship plotline in a new direction. They are linked more closely, in a new way.

If the Meet Cute simply illustrates the relationship, it's probably not the inciting incident. For example, Ralph Breaks the Internet opens with a long Meet Cute of Ralph and Vanellope's current relationship. In this montage, we may sense that Vanellope is looking for something more externally (and internally), but within the relationship itself, nothing is kicked onto a new trajectory.

More Writing Tips on Meet Cutes

Just as your protagonist's characteristic moment in the opening should set the tone for his plotline, so should the Meet Cute set the tone for the relationship--at least what the relationship is like at the beginning of the arc.

Since the Meet Cute is meant to convey where the relationship currently stands, use it to help set up the relationship arc. Consider: Are these characters close or distant? Do they have mutual feelings toward each other? You may be able to foreshadow what lies ahead. Maybe Character A dislikes Character B right away, but notices how attractive he is. Or maybe Character A isn't as invested in the relationship as Character B. Or maybe Character A wonders if this relationship is toxic.

Relay the POV character's impression of the other character. If this is the first time the characters are meeting, this is obviously a first impression. How is it wrong? Or how is it right? It may be that Character A gets the completely wrong first impression. Or it may be that Character B is even more crazy/attractive/clever/mean than Character A first realized. If the characters already know each other, then relay how the POV character views the other person.

With a strong relationship plotline, the audience often likes to look back fondly (or ironically) on how the relationship started. If the Meet Cute is the characters' first meeting, make it memorable. If the characters already know each other, consider filling in how the characters first met or started the relationship. It doesn't have to be in the Meet Cute beat, but I recommend filling it in somewhere. The moment where the relationship begins often feels special--not necessarily because the moment itself was amazing, but because the relationship it has grown into is meaningful.

The Adhesion

This beat most often happens near the 25% mark of the story (Plot Point 1), especially if the relationship plotline is the A Story. Out of all the beats, I feel like this moment can appear with the most variation, and so I almost left it off this article. But it is a key beat, and almost always a critical one.

Simplistically speaking, at this moment, something locks the relationship characters together in an irrevocable way. Usually, they've met, we've established how they feel about each other, and then something happens that binds, ties, or cements them together definitively, for their relationship journey.

Most frequently, one character (or both) wants to be distant, but something external glues them together. They are in a new "world" or situation and will have to figure out how to work together or get along. They may be stranded in the desert, assigned partners for a project, forced to fake a relationship, or what have you. As Gwen Hayes puts it, the story needs to be crafted so that they can't walk away from each other.

This adhesion can come from something completely external, as is the case in the above examples, or it can instead come from within the relationship itself. Perhaps the characters actually do want to be together. In 1984, Winston and Julia are cemented together in a definitive way after their first rendezvous. They want to keep seeing each other.

The Adhesion can also come from within one character. For example, a student may commit to learning from a specific mentor, no matter what. Signing up for a class from this person could be The Adhesion.

An important thing to note is that at this point, there should also be a "repellant" in play. The characters may find each other repellant, but The Adhesion forces them externally together. Or, the characters want to adhere to each other, but an external force, like the Party, threatens to pull them apart. Or one character determines to adhere, while the other character determines to repel. Or perhaps one character internally experiences both the push and pull, so makes a move to adhere, while experiencing a repelling doubt within.

Basically, to build on what we've talked about previously, the goal and the antagonistic force are both locked in, somehow. If the goal is to draw close, the antagonist is what threatens to pull apart. If the goal is to grow distant, the antagonistic force is what pushes them together. As with other plotlines, this is what officially sets up the main conflict.

The Adhesion will create a significant turning point in the relationship. This also makes the relationship somehow more personal

And again, this can manifest in a lot of different ways.

In Monsters Inc. The Adhesion happens when Sulley is unable to return Boo to her room. After trying to do this, he goes to the bathroom to only realize she's on his back. When he enters the scare floor, Randall is putting her door away. Sulley wants to be distant from Boo (repellant), but she is now stuck with him in Mostropolis (adhesion).

In The Prestige, The Adhesion is the death of Angier's wife. Since Borden's actions are what led to this, Angier's relationship with him takes a significant turn. Angier hates Borden for it (repellant), but is also cemented to him by it (adhesion)--it's what leads him to want to exact revenge. Even if they dislike each other, their relationship becomes more personal. The drowning is what ties them together. It's what sets up the main conflict between them.

The Adhesion can happen right after the Meet Cute, as it does in Monsters Inc. Or the meet cute and The Adhesion can be spread out over a whole act, as is what happens in The Prestige. And if you want to really make your head spin, it's technically possible The Adhesion happens before the Meet Cute. 

For example, a student may commit to learning from a specific mentor and sign up for his class, but may not actually meet the mentor until she attends the first class. In such a case, the inciting incident may be the initial disruption that led the student to first consider the mentor and/or class (which is another example of why the Meet Cute isn't always the inciting incident).

The Token

This beat commonly happens near the 50% mark of a story (the midpoint). This is typically a moment where the characters draw real close. In the screenwriting world, there is a saying, "sex at sixty." Page 60 is the midpoint of a typical screenplay. And that's when the love interests get intimate. But stripped of the romance (and sex), this is really a token of love and/or trust

Character A has an intensely vulnerable moment--Character B is seeing a deeper, more vulnerable layer of Character A than he has ever seen before. This is normally accompanied by a token, or gesture. It could be a first kiss. It could be Character A sharing her ghost story. It could be a moment where Character A has to swallow her mountain of pride to, embarrassingly, ask Character B for help. It could be Character A confessing a secret. Or even feeling safe enough with Character B to fall asleep.

As you can probably tell, this is another significant turning point in the relationship.

Normally, this moment will be accepted (and often even reciprocated) by Character B. Character B kisses back. Character B shares his ghost story. Character B agrees to help. Character B confesses a secret. Character B tucks her in.

In Monsters Inc. The Token happens when Boo goes to bed. She's scared a monster is going to get her, and Sulley decides to stay in the room with her. She falls asleep. Sulley realizes that Boo isn't dangerous; he doesn't need to be afraid of her.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Token happens when the boys take on a mountain troll to rescue Hermione, whose life is at risk. When the boys' educational standing is at risk, Hermione responds by taking the blame.

In The X-Files: Fight the Future, The Token happens after Scully reveals she plans to quit the FBI, feeling that all she's ever really done is hold Mulder back. This leads Mulder to share how much she means to him, both professionally and personally. They're both being vulnerable, to the point that even Scully is about to cry, and they (nearly) kiss for the first time.

There is, of course, room for variation. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, this is when Mr. Darcy proposes. That's his token of love and trust. Unfortunately for him, Elizabeth rejects it . . . but it still arguably makes their relationship more personal.

Typically, though, The Token brings the characters really close--it may even give them a high. Everything is going to be fine in this relationship. Or even, Everything is going to be amazing, and we'll be happy together.

How it will manifest will depend on your story and the relationship.

The Breakup

This beat is--more or less--the opposite of The Token. The Token usually draws the characters real close. The Breakup pulls them apart. While The Token is one of the most intimate beats, The Breakup is one of the most distant. Think of this as the "All is Lost" or "The Ordeal" beat of the relationship plotline. It usually hits at or near the 75% mark (Plot Point 2).

The characters have been together long enough to have shared vulnerability and build trust, but there have also been costs, doubts, and antagonistic forces. Pain-free relationships are easy. Pain-full? That is the refiner's fire.

At this point, one or both characters may be personally hurt, and in an attempt to protect themselves (or the other), push further away. There was probably a vulnerable moment nearby where someone got rejected (this may be exactly what led to The Breakup). This may have been done deliberately, but it also may have been a matter of priorities, or a "blind spot." The internal and external plotlines may also be influencing what's going on.

In relationship plotlines that are predominant in the story, we usually want to show that the characters have a choice whether to stay together or not . . . and at least one of them chooses not to. This normally connects the relationship plotline more closely to the internal plotline.

However, it's also possible that the characters still want to be together, but an external (antagonistic) force pulls them apart--the Party separates Winston and Julia. Scully (or Mulder) is abducted by aliens. This connects the relationship plotline more closely with the external plotline.

And of course, you can have some of both.

However this manifests, the point of this beat is to pull the characters apart significantly--to a degree greater or more painful than what has happened before in the story.

In Monsters Inc., Boo becomes scared of Sulley after witnessing his scare tactics, and she rejects his attempts to comfort her. Soon after, Waternoose banishes Sulley and Mike to the Himalayas. Randall and Waternoose plan to keep Boo indefinitely to extract more screams from her. All seems lost.

In The Lord of the Rings, after tension over whether or not to trust Smeagol, Frodo and Sam separate. Frodo has chosen to follow Smeagol, and has rejected Sam in the process.

In Harry Potter, Harry is physically separated from Ron and Hermione in the Forbidden Forest. 

It's often effective if The Breakup comes after a high. 

Typically, the characters draw real close at the midpoint, and are working very well together after--but at the same time, there are cracks of doubt and setbacks in the relationship (think of the dance). You may hit a big high that is then undermined by a big low. It's also possible to hit both more or less simultaneously.

In The X-Files: Fight the Future, after Mulder and Scully (nearly) kiss, Scully gets infected and abducted and Mulder takes a bullet and has to be hospitalized. He has no clue where she is, and the physical distance between them is at its greatest in the film.

And as you've likely noticed the pattern, The Breakup is another significant turning point in the relationship.

The Grand Gesture

The relationship plotline will have a climactic turning point (the climax), just as other plotlines. In a positive relationship arc, this beat is like The Token, but bigger. In a negative relationship arc, this beat is like The Breakup, but bigger. (Generally speaking, of course.)

Character A is even more vulnerable than before. This is (almost always) Character A's most vulnerable moment. In stories that feature a positive relationship plotline as the A Story, this should often be voluntary. Have Character A risk it all, or lay it all on the table. If the relationship is the A Story, this is for the relationship. If it's not, this may be for the external and/or internal plotlines. It may be that the other plotlines lead to Character A's vulnerability.

If this is a negative relationship plotline for an A Story, often the two characters will have a faceoff (of one sort or another). It's more likely Character A's vulnerability will be forced by Character B. If it's not the A Story, again, the vulnerability may be influenced by other plotlines.

However it plays out, this is the moment where Character A stands figuratively naked in front of Character B. This is the moment where Character A needs Character B's mercy the most.

Character B will then accept, reject, or neglect Character A in a defining way--a way that completes the relationship arc.

There are usually high stakes, and a significant gesture of love/trust or hate/distrust from at least one character.

It's also possible for both characters to be "naked" in front of each other, and then accept, reject, or neglect one another. This may happen at the same time, or Character A may have this moment, then Character B.

What matters is that this climactic turn is there, and that it is a defining beat.

In Monsters Inc., Sulley races to rescue Boo from Randall--risking not only his career and further punishment, but his life. In the final fight, Randall tries to drop Sulley to his death. Sulley is in his most vulnerable state, but Boo summons her courage to attack Randall, saving Sulley.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo collapses just short of the Crack of Doom. Sam carries him the rest of the way. (In contrast, Gollum attacks him.)

In The X-Files: Fight the Future, Mulder arrives in Antarctica to cure and rescue Scully, which entails sneaking into enemy territory, freeing her (note, she is, in this case, literally naked, unconscious, and freezing), and carrying her to safety when surrounded by lethal aliens.

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin lies limbless and catches fire, but Obi-wan leaves him for dead.

In The Prestige, Borden and Angier discover the truth of each other, and Borden finishes the relationship with a bullet.

In Mockingjay, Gale tearfully apologizes to Katniss about Prim's death. Katniss bids him goodbye.

Always, you can find variation. In 1984, the relationship characters aren't near each other because they have been separated by the main antagonist for torture. At the peak of the story, Winston rejects Julia to save himself (simultaneously losing himself to brainwashing), and the relationship with Julia ends (while a new relationship with Big Brother begins).

Find the climactic moment that works best for your story and your characters' relationship. Make at least one character vulnerable like never before. Deal acceptance or rejection like never before.

The Denouement

The purpose of a denouement isn't to simply tie up loose ends, but to validate what has and has not changed because of the story--especially because of the climax. It also establishes, or at least hints at, a new normal.

If the relationship ended positively, show it to us. Give us Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy happy together. Show us Scully recommitting to the X-Files and to Mulder.

And even if the characters have to go different ways because of external or internal reasons, show that they still love and trust each other. Frodo gives Sam a meaningful goodbye.

If the relationship ended negatively, show it to us. Give us Winston running into Julia and having none of the passion he had before. Show how Katniss and Gale have become essentially strangers. At least convey the lack of relationship--like we have with Anakin and Obi-wan.

Some relationship plotlines may require variation. If one character died, this obviously changes things. But you may still convey the living character's feelings about the other person. He may carry an object or picture to remember the other, visit a grave, or take action on the other's behalf. Or, he may burn a love letter, desecrate the other's space, or act against the other's will.

Show how the relationship changed or didn't change the character. Sometimes it's nice to include a callback, particularly of the Meet Cute.

In Monsters Inc., Sulley believes he will never see Boo again, but keeps a piece of her door with him at work. Secretly, Mike fixes Boo's door for Sulley, and it is implied he visits Boo.

Structure Variations

In this relationship series, I've emphasized a lot that there is variation. When you know the rules, you can bend them to your will. When you're a true chef, you can make your own recipe.

While I've discussed which beats are included and when they are usually included, they aren't law. In fact, they have a lot of flexibility. For example, the Meet Cute often happens in Act I (and usually must if it is the A Story), but it just as often happens in Act II (when it's a B Story). Most often the midpoint is The Token, but it's theoretically possible to put The Breakup at the midpoint instead. It's also possible to put The Grand Gesture around the 75% mark, with Act III being about the external plotline. 

In a story where the relationship plotline isn't the A Story, you have more wiggle room with the percentages of major turning points. For example, in The X-Files: Fight the Future, The Token technically comes after the 50% mark--the midpoint of the A Story (the external plot) happens at 50%. Since the relationship isn't the A Story, and the midponit of the A Story can't really bee romantic (the fans will get my joke), The Token can't really happen until later.

Sometimes you can hit the major turns in a relationship at the same time as the A Story's (especially if the characters are together), but sometimes you'll hit the major turns in the relationship just before or just after the A Story's. It's fine, because it's a secondary plotline.

Instead of zig-zagging the relationship from apart to close, you could technically zig-zigger it from close to closer, or zag-zagger it from distant to more distant. 

If you follow the above beats, however, you will almost never get the structure wrong.

At the most basic level, just remember that each act should include a major turning point in the relationship. 

Hope this has been helpful to you.

Happy Writing! (or shipping . . . )

Articles in this Series:

The 4 Basic Types of Relationship Arcs

Turning Relationship Arcs into Plots, Part 1

Turning Relationship Arcs into Plots, Part 2

Turning Relationship Arcs into Plots, Part 3

Structuring Your Relationship Plotline

Read What Others are Writing on Relationships

Vulnerability: The Key to Compelling Romantic Relationships by Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writer

How to Write a Meet Cute for Romance by Lindsay Elizabeth

Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes

How to Write a Swoon-Worthy Sweet Romance Novel by Victorine Lieske


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