Whether you are writing romance, adventure, fantasy, or mystery, nearly every well-told story has a relationship plotline. Unfortunately, though, entertaining banter or fiery arguments alone aren’t enough to sustain that plotline. Your characters may be love interests, friends, neighbors, allies, rivals, or even enemies, but regardless, they should work off the same basic storytelling principles. They should have a relationship arc, and they should have the proper relationship plot elements in play.
Just as a character arc is about how a character grows or changes through a story, a relationship arc is about how a relationship grows or changes through a story. And at the most basic level, there are only four arcs that can happen: positive change, negative change, positive steadfast, negative steadfast.
Positive Change: The characters start distant, and one or both may even distrust or dislike the other, but they end close, growing in trust and respect. Examples: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Sulley and Boo in Monsters Inc.
Negative Change: The characters start close, with trust and respect, but end distant with distrust or dislike. Examples: Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith, Katniss and Gale in Mockingjay.
Positive Steadfast: The characters start close, and while they may struggle through the middle, ultimately end close. Often their trust, respect, and commitment grow by degree. Examples: Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, Shrek and Fiona in Shrek 2.
Negative Steadfast: The characters start distant, with one or both perhaps even distrusting or disliking the other. While they may possibly get close through the middle, they ultimately end distant, often increasing in distrust or dislike. Examples: Estella and the Baroness in Cruella, Winston and Julia in 1984.
You can get more detailed and complex with any of these arcs, and there is room for variation, but these work for any relationship: friends, coworkers, couples, rivals, or enemies. You can check out Angela and Becca’s relationship thesaurus for ideas on specifics.
Relationship Plot Elements
Once you have an idea of the relationship arc, you want to make sure you have the proper plot elements for the journey. My primary principles of plot are goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Because it can be tricky to see how these show up in relationship plotlines, we’ll go through each.
At the most basic level, in a relationship, there are only three goals: draw closer, grow apart, or maintain the relationship as is.
While other plotlines may influence the relationship plotline, think of the relationship itself and ask: Does my character want to be closer to or more distant from this person? Or does my character want to maintain the relationship as is? That is the relationship goal. And it’s okay if each person in the relationship has a different one. It’s also okay if the goal changes through the story—just make sure there is a goal in play.
The antagonist is a form of opposition—it’s something in the way of the goal. What is keeping your character from having that goal? For relationships, this may come from three different places.
External: Something outside the relationship is interfering with the goal. A powerful father may be determined to keep the lovers apart.
Within the relationship: Each participant has a different goal, such as one person wanting to get close, and the other wanting to create distance. They may also have personal differences that get in the way.
Internal: Something inside one or both characters is interfering with the goal. Internal conflict, such as a fear of rejection, is creating obstacles.
You can have more than one relationship antagonist, and it may change through the story. It does not need to be the same as the main antagonist of the external plotline.
Having a relationship goal and antagonist doesn’t amount to much if they aren’t creating conflict. The character should be striving for the goal and the antagonist should be opposing it (directly or indirectly). Just wishing for better circumstances isn’t enough. There needs to be a struggle, with no easy, foreseeable resolution.
How the characters address the conflict will create the arc. As the characters overcome, or are overcome by, the obstacles, they will grow closer or further apart.
Conflict without consequences is just cleverly disguised filler. Make sure to lay out the stakes and ramifications. What do these characters have to gain (and/or lose) in overcoming the conflict? What do they have to lose (and/or gain) in being overcome by the conflict?
It’s best if the consequences of the relationship plotline bleed into other plotlines. A common example is that the protagonist can’t succeed in the external plotline, unless she resolves the conflict of the relationship plotline.
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.