Write stronger stories!
Write great protagonists!
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials

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


  1. Three part series. Sully, Sulley, Scully. Which is it?

    1. Hey there, Sulley and Scully are two different characters from two different stories. Sulley is the blue monster from the movie Monsters Inc. Scully is the main female lead of the t.v. show The X-Files. I don't think I've used "Sully." The names are spelled very similarly, although the characters and shows are completely different from each other.

      The fact the names are spelled similarly is just a coincidence that came up from the examples I chose.


I love comments :)