Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.36: The Elemental Relationship

In elemental relationship stories the primary page-turning driver is the relationship between two or three characters ¹. In this episode we discuss ways in which we can write character relationships—parent/child, buddy-cop, romance, and more—to be compelling.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson

¹We’re differentiating “Relationship” from “Ensemble” because in our elemental genre model the elemental ensemble story is quite a bit different from the elemental relationship.

Homework: Grab a romantic comedy of some kind. Watch it, and take notes of the things that define their relationship, and how it progresses.

Thing of the week: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Relationship stories where readers are driven to turn pages to find out how the relationship develops. Often denial, reluctance, exploration, acceptance. Braiding roses — show us the roses, show us the thorns, then show us how they fit together. The Act 2 disaster, where the relationship worsens, can break your heart. Beware the idiot plot, where 5 seconds of conversation would solve the problem. Make the problem real, and let them work to solve it. The conflict often reflects outside pressures. The key moment for a relationship is when the characters support each other. The conflict sets that up, makes you wonder if they will. Then you cheer when they do, when they step up and fight for the relationship and each other. Look for the media naranja, the half orange, that completes your character. What are the gaps, holes, and thorns that need to be fitted together? Make sure that the characters are ones that the reader likes!

Brandon’s moment: We look at the elemental genres to give you basic components to use in building stories. Stories are often based around crisis moments. But to get to the crisis moment, make the right promises, in tone and progress, so that the moment fits.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Elemental Relationship.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] Were going to be talking about relationship stories. Specifically, stories in which the prime motivation for you turning page to page is a relationship, generally between two characters.
[Dan] We want to be clear that this is not about romance, necessarily, though it can be. It can also be buddy cop, it can be road movie father-son kind of thing, whatever. The two people and the way they relate to each other is the core, however that relationship [inaudible changes?]
[Mary] However, I will also say that in some ways, it’s not even two people, because National Velvet, Black Beauty, those are still relationship stories.
[Brandon] You’re right. Absolutely, totally right. Yeah. And it’s not… Sometimes there’s three, sometimes there’s four. We differentiate this from ensemble, which we’ll get to later, in that this singular relationship is what’s driving it. We also always ask, “What makes people turn the page, page by page?” Well, in this case, your progress, your sense of moving through the story is you want to see how this relationship develops. That is primary to your motive. Now a lot of stories have relationships, and we’ll talk in two weeks about how to fold this into another story and use it as a subplot. For now, we’re talking about those stories that are driven primarily by that relationship.
[Mary] So, there’s an interesting formula that works whether you’re talking about a romance or a bromance, but buddy cops, a buddy cop film, often has this pattern. It goes like this. Denial. Like, oh, no, we’re never going to get along. [Garbled] Reluctance. Well, maybe. Maybe we can. Then exploration. Well, let’s see how this works out if we try to cooperate. Then acceptance. Then, in romance, matrimony.
[Mary] But in other forms, it is partnership.

[Brandon] Right. Long ago, when Dave… Dan and I took a class from Dave, he talked about this one a lot. With the idea of… He called it braided roses. Which was, he said, first you want to show why each person is a rose. Why you like them both so much. Then you want to show that they have thorns, and that those thorns poke each other. Then the story is weaving those thorns around so that the stems align and you see that they…
[Dan] Can fit together perfectly.
[Brandon] Fit perfectly despite their thorns. So he said a relationship story is braiding roses.
[Mary] Lethal Weapon is a beautiful example of this. Because it is… Those are two thorny guys.
[Brandon] Yup. But I mean, most really great romances are going to have the same sort of things where you’ll start off… Often they’ll start with the viewpoint of one of the characters. They’ll show just how their life is wrong and they’re messed up. Sandra Bullock from While You Were Sleeping is a great example of this, where it’s like she has got all this bumblingness and awkwardness and things like this. Then they braid the roses with her and…
[Dan] Bill Pullman.
[Brandon] Bill Pullman, and by the end, you’re like, “They’re perfect together.”

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve noticed about relationship stories that actually makes me a lot tenser then the same moments in adventure stories or horror stories even. That is our Act 2 disaster, where the relationship worsens, always just breaks my heart. I like that feeling less than the feeling that oh, no, the house is on fire, oh, no, the world might be destroyed. Oh, no, these two people I like aren’t getting along. Those stakes are huge for me. In terms of getting people to turn pages, in terms of getting people invested, eliciting that feeling during the Act 2 disaster or whatever passes for that in the structure that you’re using is critical. I bring that up because, Mary, as you described these phases, you made it sound like a smooth progression, and it’s not going to be that at all.
[Mary] It’s not going to be. I should give credit to Elizabeth Boyle. She is the one who taught that to me in a romance class, and it was brilliant. I’ve discovered that it actually applies to a lot of different relationship things.

[Dan] Yeah. Now when we’re talking about that kind of end of the second act, everything goes wrong in a relationship, this is so easy to do poorly. To the point that it has a word, it has a name, which is the idiot plot. The plot that could be solved in five seconds if the characters would talk to each other. You see this in romcoms all the time. Where one character sees the other one talking to a person and thinks, “Oh, they’re being unfaithful to me,” or whatever it is. Don’t do that, but you still need that bumpiness. You just need to earn it.
[Brandon] I’ll bring out, again, While You Were Sleeping. If you guys haven’t seen this, Sandra Bullock pretends… She’s like… She falls in love with this guy. Not really. Infatuation with him. He’s like perfect. She pretends to be his fiancée, I believe it is. Unbeknownst to his family. She gets into this kind of accidentally. She didn’t mean it. She just… He gets in a car wreck and is in a coma or whatever. So she gets pulled in by the family. Meanwhile, they build a relationship between her and Bill Pullman, his brother. Right? Well, the Act 2 disaster is the guy wakes up. Right. Suddenly the whole farce is going to come tumbling down on her lies. But he doesn’t remember. He just assumes that the trauma caused him to forget and that they are engaged. It’s so much better than the…
[Dan] Exactly.
[Brandon] Idiot plot of…
[Dan] Because the entire movie has been building toward it. It’s not something you can solve in five minutes of conversation. That’s the whole problem.

[Brandon] You were going to say something, Mary.
[Mary] One of the things that I was going to say is that we tend to… When we’re… When things go terribly wrong with these relationships, that a lot of times we feel like it needs to be something that the characters are struggling with between each other. Anyone who has a relationship knows that a lot of times the conflicts that you have between each other are actually a reflection of a conflict that is coming from outside. So when you’re looking at the thing that is causing the denial or the… Any of that tension between the two characters, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the you lied to me. It can be sometimes as simple as you didn’t take out the trash, which is actually about the fact that we don’t have enough money to pay the rent.
[Dan] One of my favorite love stories that does this is actually Pride and Prejudice. At least, the way I interpret it, the big oh, no, everything comes crashing down moment is actually neither of the two mains, but it’s the stupid little sister who runs off with the soldier. All of a sudden, again we’ve been building the entire book that he can’t align himself with a family that has this kind of shady goings-on. So when the little sister does that, well, it’s all over.
[Brandon] Now, this story is not primarily a relationship that I’m going to reference, but it’s a good example of using it in not a romance. That is Star Wars, the original Star Wars, which is when Han Solo leaves. Han Solo, we’ve been building a relationship between him and Luke and Leia. There’s this idea of there’s a friendship going. He’s going to be a good guy. But we all know he’s going to go as soon as he gets paid. He gets paid and he does go. That’s the crisis of that relationship, even though it’s not a major relationship movie. That’s the sort of thing you’re looking for, where of course he’s going to leave. That’s what we’ve been saying he’s going to do. But you really want him to come back. That’s why you cheer when he comes back, and why, in some lesser film, you might have the reverse, where the character says, “You know what? I decided I’m going to stay. I’m going to be with you, I’m going to come back,” or whatever, and you don’t cheer because that momentum wasn’t there. You’re not on board for the yeah, I know he’s going to leave. But I secretly want him to come back. You gotta make the reader feel like the characters do, rather than have them screaming at the characters, “No, that’s not what you would do.”
[Howard] The reason Han’s departure works in Star Wars is not because we knew he was leaving. Oh, he’s a rogue, he’s a mercenary. It’s because when he is on the way out, Leia tells us what she thinks of him. That’s heartbreaking. Because we want them to be friends. And now they are not friends.

[Brandon] I’m going to stop us for our book of the week this week. Mary, you have the book of the week this week. One with a very interesting title.
[Mary] Yes. I love this book. It’s called Beyond Heaving Bosoms. This is not fiction. This is a really serious, and by serious I mean hilarious and comedic, in-depth look at the genre of romance. Specifically, it has several chapters looking at relationships and how they work and the different types of relationships that appear in romance, both old school and new school. It is… First of all, hilarious. Second, really, really smart. It’s by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which is a great website. I highly recommend this. Anyone who is interested in writing relationships, even if you’re not interested in writing a romance, this is a book you should read.
[Brandon] Excellent. Available wherever good books are sold.

[Brandon] I want to take a moment here. Talking about this. Just because we’ve been doing elemental genres for a while. I want to reinforce a concept maybe we haven’t talked about enough. When I pitched this to the podcasters, it was this idea of we want to start distilling stories down to their base components so that our listeners can use those to build their own stories. We often talk about this idea of what causes someone to turn the page. I want the listeners, I want to reinforce this idea that we build these stories based around these crisis moments in some ways. We brought up this idea of the crisis is a crisis between the relationship. That’s how you identify a relationship plot. If you’re watching and you’re like, “Oh. The big moment, what I’m scared of is if these two characters are going to still be friends are not.” That means you have built a relationship plot. We often talk about promises and fulfilling on promises. You’re… The importance of this, why it’s so useful is because you as an author can then identify I need to be making the right promises for my right crisis moment. I need to be making promises of tone and progress, so that that moment is effective. Rather than doing other things and then having a turn in the middle that doesn’t match the sense of progress, the sense of conflict that I’ve been building through my story. I see… This is one of the number one things I see in my students, is that they know they need a crisis. They come up with one, but it does not reinforce why people have been reading the book up to that point.

[Mary] I think one of the things that people are looking for when they are looking for a relationship is… They’re looking for the conflict, sure. But actually, the thing that they’re reading for is the moment when the characters support each other.
[Brandon] Yes. I would agree with that 100%.
[Mary] You do need the conflict where you question whether or not that support is going to come. Like the moment when Han leaves. The reason we cheer is because he’s supporting them, he is there. That, I think, is the thing that keeps people reading. That sense of… The moment when they support. Like in that denial, reluctance, exploration, acceptance…
[Brandon] You’re looking for that. You want not just acceptance, a willingness to fight for it.
[Mary] I am there for you.
[Brandon] That’s where I would put the next step beyond that. That’s Han coming back, because he’s giving up a lot to come back. We see the ramifications of that in the next film. These are the moments that we want in our stories.

[Brandon] Let me ask you guys this. How can, in a relationship plot, how can you indicate to the reader that these two characters belong together in some way, without just making it so obvious that it’s dumb?
[Dan] Okay. So. Earlier, when we talked about braided roses, and I love that term, but there is another one that I like to use because I think it takes a little step further. In Mexico, kind of their phrase for soulmate is media naranja, which means half orange. You have to find your half orange. The concept of that is that you complete each other. You each have something that the other one does not have. That’s what makes you fit together so well. So when I’m telling a relationship story, I’m trying to find those moments. Not necessarily thorns, but holes or gaps, where I am lacking something that this other person can fill.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] I… maybe this is just me. But in a good relationship story, in a good love story, I have fallen in love. In a friendship story, I feel like I am now friends with these people. It is that real for me. If you haven’t done it right, I am watching two people fall in love, but I don’t like either of them. I’m watching two people be friends, and I would not ask either of them to go to a movie with me or out to dinner or whatever. When you find the media naranja, if you… I don’t know how this works, but when you give me, the reader, this sense that I am incomplete and this character is somehow completing me, then I’m there.
[Mary] That… I was thinking… As you were talking, I was thinking about Scott Lynch’s The Gentleman Bastards series and the relationship between… Oh, my…
[Dan] Locke? And Sabetha?
[Mary] No.
[Dan] Okay. Jean?
[Mary] Locke and Jean. No. I’m much less invested in the Locke and Sabetha relationship.
[Dan] Well, we can talk about that later. Because I’m all over that.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s because you’re a guy. Sorry. That is… I love Scott. I have very strong feels there. But the Locke and Jean relationship is fantastic, I think. One of the things, for me, which ties into what Howard was saying, is that I want to be friends with them. Locke keeps making really crappy choices. I want him to make a better choice. I think one of the things with the relationship films, and you see this with Lethal Weapon, you want them to make a better choice. That moment of support? That’s the moment when they make the better choice. That’s the moment when you and the character are most in alignment, I think. That’s, I think, a lot of what people are reading for.
[Dan] Well, one of the reasons that works, I think, is because Jean is so supportive. So to Howard’s point, I want Jean to be my friend because I want that kind of support from my friends. You guys are just not pulling your weight.
[Mary] It’s because you’ve got that green headband on.
[Howard] Dude, it’s Act 2.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s call it here and go to our homework. Dan, you have some homework for us.
[Dan] I do. I want you to go out and grab a romantic comedy of some kind. One you’ve seen before, one you’ve never seen, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. Watch it, and take notes as you go. What are the things… How do the characters meet? What do they do that helps each other, what do they like about each other, what do they not like about each other? Where are those gaps and missing pieces and thorns that define that relationship? Just take notes as you watch and see what that teaches you about how the story is constructed.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.