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Monday, January 30, 2023

Structuring Relationship Arcs & Plots in a Series

Structuring relationship arcs and plots throughout a series can sometimes feel a little nebulous and daunting. Plenty of writers have messed up such attempts. Luckily, plenty of others get them right, and so can you. Just like everything else in this relationship arc and plot series though, there is . . . a lot of room for variation. Nonetheless, this article will give you foundational guidelines to help you get it right in your series.

Hello, everyone! I thought I was basically done with my relationship articles, but I have been asked a couple of times how to handle relationship arcs and plotlines in a series. Well, in some ways, it is similar to how you handle character arcs in a series, which means . . .  there is more than one way to do it.

Structure in a Series

When it comes to looking at a series, I find it helpful to view each volume the same way you would view an act in a single volume. 

Scenes fit into sequences, sequences fit into acts, acts fit into global narrative arcs, and each global narrative arc makes up a volume, or installment, in a series.

This isn't a 100% accurate view for all series, but these days, I think it works for most series.

So, generally speaking, each of these units still follows the basic story structure. I've talked about this several times, most notably in "Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act," but for convenience here are some visuals:

Often, people divide Act II in half, at the midpoint, in which case, you may view the story more like this:

Because this shape is like a Russian nesting doll, or a fractal, there is no reason why you can't extend it beyond a single book into a series as a whole.

So the series as a whole may have this shape, while each installment has this shape. Each installment is getting us closer to the climax of the whole series. Therefore, each volume in a series is like, more or less, an act within one.

But this doesn't work for everything.

In a serial, there may not be an overarching plotline. It may be that each installment is, more or less, a standalone, that the audience could arguably read (or watch) in any order. In that case, you'll likely view each installment as its own thing.

Then, on the opposite side of the spectrum from that, you may occasionally find one big story that has simply been cut into pieces, like The Lord of the Rings. This trilogy was actually originally one book, but Tolkien was told it was too long, so he essentially just sliced it into three. This is why the installments can sorta feel like . . . well, they are just sliced. If you watch the movies, though, the filmmakers worked to try to make them each fit typical structure--which is one of the reasons why Shelob's lair was moved from the second book to the third film.

Keeping all this in mind, you have a few ways to view relationship plotlines through a series:

1. Each installment has a self-contained relationship plotline . . . that progresses an overarching series relationship plotline.

2. Each installment essentially has a "standalone" relationship plotline.

3. There is one relationship plotline stretched over the whole series.

It's also possible to have some situations that seem to fit in between these. . . . And it often gets complex. For one . . . 

. . . the above numbers don't have to necessarily match up with how you view the series structure in general. 

It's possible to have a serial series that stretches a relationship plotline over the whole series (such as Jim and Pam in The Office). Or, it's possible to have a "nesting doll" series where each installment simply has a standalone relationship plotline.

This is admittedly, one of the reasons why I've struggled with organizing this post.

With the third option, it's likely the relationship plotline isn't a dominant focal plotline for much of the series, but instead a lesser plotline or something more on the sidelines. For example, Jim and Pam's relationship isn't the primary plotline of most episodes of The Office. It may be an important component of most episodes, but if it were literally the primary plotline, the focus, it would have needed to progress faster. Otherwise, audiences would have banged their heads against their walls with how slow the story was going. Same goes for The X-Files.

Now, with that said, you can break both The Office and The X-Files down by seasons and see progressions within these relationships in the seasons. Episodes fit into seasons. Seasons fit into the series.

Rule of thumb: If you pick option three, you will (likely) need other more prominent plotlines, while you inch that one forward in the background or on the sidelines. 

For much of the rest of this article, I'll be focusing on the first two options.


Reminder: Relationship Arc vs. Relationship Plotline

While we may sometimes use the terms "relationship arc" and "relationship plotline" to mean the same thing, if you get really technical, they may not be the exact same thing. Every relationship plotline needs a relationship arc. But not every relationship arc needs a plotline.

For example, say I have a story about a young man going on an adventure (I know, so original!). Before he leaves, I may show that he has a poor relationship with his mother. He leaves, goes on his adventure and has no contact with or influence from his mom. Perhaps, because of the adventure--the external and internal journeys--he realizes how to improve his relationship with his mom. At the end of the story, he returns home, and the two make up.

The relationship between the mother and son arguably has a relationship arc, but it's not really a relationship plotline.

If the mother and son had to go on the adventure together and work out their differences, which drew them closer together, it would be both a relationship arc and a relationship plotline.

See how that works?

Now that I've laid out some groundwork, let's get crafting . . . 

Are You Plotting about the Same Character Relationship?

This is perhaps the first question to ask yourself.

Most stories will feature a relationship plotline. 

But just because one relationship fulfilled this in a previous volume, doesn't mean it needs to for the next volume.

Using Different Relationships for Different Installments

The first, quickest example of this that comes to mind for me, is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films. Each installment focuses on a different relationship. The first one has a plotline about the protagonist and his best friend. The second has one about the protagonist and his brother. The third about the protagonist and his dad. And the fourth about the protagonist and his mom. These are the relationship plotlines for each installment.

Notice, however, that this doesn't mean that the protagonist's relationships with the others have disappeared from the story. No one died, and no relationship ended. It's just that Greg's relationship with his best friend is no longer the prominent relationship plotline after the first installment. You can argue it's a positive steadfast relationship arc through the second, third, and fourth films, but it's not the main relationship plotline. That relationship takes more of a backseat, so the others can have their chance to shine.

In this sense, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is structured so that each volume has, more or less, its own standalone relationship plotline, even if there are still other relationship arcs.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid leans more toward being a serial, and this works fine. 

However, as I touched on above, you don't have to only do this for serials.

For example, I'm working on a YA fantasy series that has an overarching plot, and each installment takes the readers closer to the series climax. The prominent relationship plotline in my first installment is not the same one for the second installment. In the first installment, the prominent relationship is between my protagonist and his friend's sister. In the second installment, the prominent relationship is between my protagonist and his enemy. 

The first relationship is still very much there, and still important, but it takes more of a backseat.

It arguably even still has a plotline . . . but it's not the prominent relationship plotline. Instead, it's the relationship with the enemy that gets the biggest turning points and the most focus. That's the one I zoom in on for major events. The other still has antagonists and conflict but it's all more understated.

See what I mean about this all getting complex?

Using the Same Relationship through Installments

If the same relationship that was used in the prior installment's relationship plotline will be used again in the next installment's key relationship plotline, things will be a bit different . . . though not as much as you would expect. What's mostly different is that the audience has already seen the relationship, conflicts, and costs. The audience already knows how this relationship has gone previously. 

As a writer, you'll need to think of believable antagonists to push this relationship into conflict again. You'll need to think of believable ways to test, change, or turn it.

I'll be talking about this more below, so I won't go into detail here.

Using Multiple Relationships in the Same Installment

I touched on this earlier, but I want to make sure to clearly acknowledge that it's also possible to have multiple relationship plotlines in a single installment (or even throughout a series).

It is possible there are two (or more) relationships that get plotlines and attention. In Revenge of the Sith, while the most prominent relationship plotline is between Obi-Wan and Anakin, another very important one is between Anakin and Padme. In fact, the latter gets some of the key relationship beats I talked about last time. But because Obi-Wan and Anakin's gets the most attention and is what's featured in the climax, it's the most prominent relationship plotline. 

Likewise, in Monsters Inc. Sulley and Mike also have a relationship plotline, which also has key beats. But it's not the most prominent relationship plotline. That goes to Sulley and Boo.

Remember: How prominent the plotline is will determine how developed and fleshed out the plotline needs to be. It will also influence how it is structured. The more prominent the plotline, the more it needs to hit the right turning points at the right percentages. The less prominent, and the less it needs to hit those at those times, and the less fleshed out it can be. Generally speaking.

In the second installment of my WIP series, the protagonist and the girl still have a plotline, but it's less dramatic and detailed.

Determine the Relationship Arc for the Installment

If your sequel features a different relationship than the prior installment, then, just like the prior installment, you'll need to consider how it will arc. In my WIP, volume one is a positive change relationship arc . . . and volume two will probably be a negative steadfast relationship arc.

If you are featuring the same relationship, depending on how the series is handled, there may be less options available to you. 

For example, if volume one features a positive change relationship arc, you probably can't use that arc again, because the characters are already close.

But the reason I say "probably," is because it's possible quite a bit of time and a lot has happened between the installments. In that case, it may be that the characters have become distant or even enemies (again). If so, you need to fill in the audience as to how this believably happened. (Please, don't use a weak antagonist to explain it! Make it believable.)

Let's say no time has passed between installments, and volume two picks up right after volume one. This only gives you two options: positive steadfast, or negative change. The plot will test the relationship, and if that relationship survives, it will be a positive steadfast arc. If it doesn't, it will be a negative change arc.

See how this is different, and yet, not that different, from featuring a new relationship?

When we view each installment similar to how we view acts, we can push the characters together or pull them apart in similar ways. Either, by the end of the volume, they are pushed closer together, or, they are pulled further apart (generally speaking). If the next installment starts with the relationship, more or less, in the same place, we then pick up where we left off.

Let's imagine we are working on a series that features the same relationship, and the relationship doesn't change drastically in the time between volumes. Here are some possible ways this can play out:

Volume 1: Positive Change --> Volume 2: Positive Steadfast --> Volume 3: Positive Steadfast --> Volume 4: Positive Steadfast

In this series, in each installment, the characters are getting closer. They may have fallouts in the middle of each sequel, but ultimately, their relationship is overcoming, surviving, or maybe even thriving, despite the conflicts brought on by antagonistic forces, and they are growing closer and closer and closer together.

While not the perfect example of this (because I think you can argue it's not always the prominent relationship plotline), this is similar to the trio's relationships with each other in Harry Potter. They all become friends in the first volume, and while they definitely get in fights (some of which threaten to ruin their relationships for good), they ultimately all draw back together by the end of any given volume.

Here is another option.

Volume 1: Positive Change --> 2. Positive Steadfast --> 3. Negative Change --> 4. Negative Steadfast

And more . . . 

Volume 1: Negative Change --> 2. Negative Steadfast --> 3. Positive Change --> 4. Positive Steadfast

Volume 1: Negative Steadfast --> 2. Negative Steadfast --> 3. Positive Change --> 4. Negative Change

Volume 1: Positive Change --> 2. Positive Steadfast --> 3. Negative Change

Volume 1: Positive Steadfast --> 2. Negative Change

Volume 1: Negative Change --> 2. Positive Change

. . . I think you get the picture.

Again, because most frequently structure is like a Russian nesting doll, we can zoom out. We can look at how the relationship begins and ends in the series, to categorize the overall series relationship arc.

As a series, the trio in Harry Potter has a positive change relationship arc, because they all started as strangers, and ended as friends (or really, family). 

Similarly, if I looked at the Star Wars prequels, I may say that, ultimately, as a trilogy, Obi-wan and Anakin have a negative steadfast arc, because they started as strangers and ended as enemies.

Yet within a single installment (Revenge of the Sith), they have a negative change arc.

Back to looking at acts in relation to volumes: Recall that each act will end with a major turn in the relationship that either draws the characters closer together, or pulls them further apart.

This is what we are doing in a series, on a bigger scale.

In the Star Wars prequels, we draw together, and together, then pull apart.

Though, Obi-Wan and Anakin aren't the major relationship plotline for the whole series, which brings me to my next point . . . 

Foreground vs. Background Relationships

As I mentioned earlier, your character will likely have more than one relationship. Some relationships may be brought to the foreground, and others may be pushed more to the background. 

I've used Katniss and Gale as an example of a negative change relationship multiple times. It's negative change in the series, but not every installment. It's also not the prominent relationship plotline in every installment.

The main, prominent relationship plot in the first volume, is between Katniss and Peeta. The second volume showcases each relationship (with more emphasis on Gale first, and Peeta later), and I would argue, that in the last volume, Katniss and Gale make up the main prominent relationship (Peeta is gone for a good portion of the book, and even when he comes back, he's not himself).

So Suzanne Collins brings Katniss's relationship with Gale from the background in volume one, to the foreground by volume three. While her relationship with Peeta takes, to some degree, a backseat in volume three.

Nonetheless, we can still map out the relationship arc with Gale, even if it's not always a prominent plotline.

Volume 1: Positive Steadfast --> 2. Positive Steadfast --> 3. Negative Change

Because they start close and end distant, overall, they ultimately have a negative change relationship.

But it's not that way for each volume.

We can also map out Katniss's relationship with Peeta, but this is a little tricky, because it contains some gray areas and variations. But I'll try to keep it basic.

Volume one draws them from distant to close, so I'd say that is a positive change relationship (although Peeta has loved Katniss from a distance, and they know one another, they aren't close in the beginning.)

Volume two is tricky. Between the end of one and the beginning of two, they've become more distant. Then they have to pretend to be close, but in actuality, their relationship has gone cold. By the end of this volume, Katniss loves Peeta, but now Peeta is pulled physically distant. I think you could argue this is another positive change arc, but it's not super clear-cut.

Volume three is, from Katniss's POV, positive steadfast. She loves Peeta already, but that love is tested by his mental state and behavior. But again, it's complicated, because Peeta, not in his right mind, doesn't like Katniss when he comes back and sees her as an enemy.

So this is an example of a relationship with a lot of variation, that makes it complicated and complex (and in some ways, difficult to categorize).

In any case, both relationships have arcs through the trilogy, but Collins moves them in and out of the background. Sorta like how, in my WIP, I moved the relationship of volume one more to the backseat for volume two. And likewise, the relationship of volume two I actually pulled forward from the backseat of volume one.

Handling the Ongoing Push and Pull of the Same Relationship

In a "Russian Nesting Doll"

If you have a series that features the same relationship as a prominent plotline in each installment, and the relationship plotline itself is very prominent, one of the main challenges will likely be how to keep the push and pull of it interesting and believable. How much can you really push the same characters together and pull them apart?

If you only do it the same way, it will probably become repetitious and will feel inauthentic. 

One of the most annoying things with relationships in sequels, happens when the writers have the relationship characters simply repeat a conflict that was already resolved in a prior installment.

If Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy already overcame their individual pride and prejudice to be together, we don't want to repeat the exact same thing for a sequel.

One--it's already been done.

Two--by doing it again, we suggest to the audience that the characters overcoming that conflict in the previous installment "wasn't real." It undoes the work of the previous installment, which means the audience already feels disappointment. Which means, it's going to be extra difficult to satisfy the audience. It's a bad way to start the story.

Instead, you need to search for something that is bigger or different, but that could still believably threaten and put pressure on the relationship.

I actually think Shrek 2 does a good job handling this. In the first movie, Shrek has to overcome his misbeliefs that he can't be loved romantically as an ogre, and he has to learn to open up to Fiona.

Both he as a character and the relationship itself have positive change arcs.

So how do we believably threaten their bliss?

If the writers redid the same thing with the same characters to the same degree, it would be annoying and disappointing. We wouldn't believe the antagonist as a real threat, because we already saw the characters overcome the situation the first time.

So instead, the writers widened the scope and strengthened the threat. It's not Farquad they have to deal with, but Fiona's dad (something more personal) and the deal he made with the Fairy Godmother about who will be prince over Far Far Away--a bigger and more relevant kingdom than Duloc. 

Instead of Shrek having to simply relearn Fiona can love him again, the writers used external antagonists to ultimately argue that Fiona deserved something better. And that if he truly loved her, he'd let her go, so she could have a better life. It's only when this is fully argued, that the relationship itself is at serious risk.

But this is all generally speaking. For example . . . 

In a Serial

In a serial, characters often end up in, more or less, the same place where they started--they often have to, because each installment needs to work as essentially a standalone. This means if you are writing more of a serial relationship (so to speak), it will likely have a steadfast relationship arc for each installment. Or, alternatively, if there is a change arc, things are back to "normal" by the start of the next installment.

Because of the nature of this approach, characters may overcome antagonistic forces and have a personal character arc, but it may not be as . . . longlasting or transformative. In a sense, you can argue the arc didn't go as deep as it would in another approach.

In a serial, rather than a character definitively arcing into or out of something, the writer is often working with a character who wavers between two things. Sometimes the character believes and does X and other times he believes and does Y. X and Y are opposing worldviews or pathways. 

For example, in The Office, Michael Scott is often torn between being a friend and being a boss. Sometimes he chooses being a friend over a boss, and other times he chooses being a boss over a friend. He never really, definitively, arcs to a single worldview. He simply wavers.

When applied to relationships, we could say that there are some recurring issues in the relationship, but they don't get 100% definitively resolved, so instead, the relationship is regularly wavering between smooth sailing and rocky road. In such a case, it's more likely to be okay to bring up previous antagonistic forces, because the characters didn't 100% definitively overcome that.

Because they didn't 100% definitively overcome that, it doesn't leave audiences groaning.

Regardless, exact repetition of something is often annoying and kills narrative drive. So even in a serial, you need to find some variation--different concrete manifestations of the same underlying issue. (Michael Scott doesn't try to be a friend in the exact same way over and over again; this desire manifests in different concrete ways. So you could say with "serial" relationships.)

. . . And that just about covers it for relationship arcs and plots through a series.

My guess is that most of you will be doing a sort of "Russian nesting doll" approach with your relationship plotlines, or, you'll be featuring a different relationship in the installments . . . in any case, I hope this has been helpful to you.

P.S. In case you missed it last week, I will be teaching a new online writing course called "The Triarchy Method of Story." I'm so excited to dig deep into the "bones" of story and help others strengthen their own stories. For all the info, go here.


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