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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


  1. Sully or Sulley. Consistency please.

    1. Hey there, I'm not finding any instances of "Sully" in my articles. Is that what you were referring to? Or am I missing something? (I do admit that "Scully" does look similar to "Sulley," but those are two different characters.) (I would love to fix any errors I'm "blind" to or missed.) :)


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