I was recently reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. While many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical hero’s journey plot, perhaps even more stories revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.
Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.
Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods that can help.
Communicate what’s normal.
Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I recently read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.
Refer to or imply an off-page history.
Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.” For example, every Saturday they happened to both be at the dog park, and that’s how they became friends (or enemies).
Have a character predict how the other will behave or react.
This immediately conveys that these two people know each other very well. Again, it can be more reoccurring: “Samantha always got cranky when she ran out of chocolate.” Or a specific moment: “I could already picture Monica’s eye roll before I delivered the news.”
If the relationship is long-term, give us a sense of how it has changed.
A lot can change between first falling in love and being married for ten years. Whether it’s a friendship, partnership, or even an enemy, naturally there will be some degree of growth or at least change. Give us a glimpse of how the relationship we see on the page now is different than it was before.
Round out likeness with foiling, or opposition with likeness.
One of the mistakes that is easy to make is to make participants in a positive relationship exactly the same, or participants in a negative relationship exactly opposites. But almost nothing can make a relationship feel more authentic and well-rounded quicker than having some of both. This means that even two best friends should disagree with or dislike each other to some extent, in some aspect. It’s even better if you can make them opposites in some way.
On the other hand, with an enemy, there should be some similarity and likeness between the characters, maybe even admiration (even if the viewpoint character doesn’t want to admit it). This will immediately make the relationship feel more complex.
For a more in-depth look at some of these points and at creating powerful positive relationships between characters, check out my article HERE. And if you don’t have time to read it, you can listen to it HERE on my Youtube page.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.