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

11.38: The Elemental Relationship as a Sub-Genre

We find the elemental relationship in all kinds of stories that are not fundamentally about relationships. The intimate interaction between characters is part of how we define the characters, how we understand who they are as they go on to do the stuff that the story is about.

In this episode we’ll talk about how to apply the principles of relationship writing to stories whose page-turning impetus comes from somewhere else.

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

Homework: Take your notes from the rom-com homework two weeks ago, and build a different relationship onto those beats.

Thing of the week: And I Darken, by Kiersten White, narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Relationship is often the number two thing in a book. Often the main plot, the driver, is another elemental genre, but relationship adds, either throughout the book or in smaller sections. Relationship often helps make a main character more sympathetic. How do you add relationship without letting it take over? What’s the driver? Use that to push evolution in the relationship, without making relationship the main problem. Think about where you spend your words — the problem with the most words is the most important one! Often there are true hybrids. Often just use relationship as a seasoning, with moments where characters stand in support of each other, or reveal a shared history. Suggest a relationship, and let the reader tell their own story about it. Subplots need to evolve, with the reader interested in how it is going to develop. Seasoning can be fine, too.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Relationship As Subgenre.
[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] We are still talking about how good a friends we are.
[Mary] Yes. And we are still friends.
[Brandon] Still friends.
[Dan] Still such good friends.
[Brandon] Even if we can’t agree on…
[Dan] Anything.
[Brandon] The Lies of Locke Lamora.
[Mary] The Lies of Locke Lamora we all love.
[Howard] I thought you were going to say meatloaf, but…
[Mary] Oh. Meatloaf. It was just…
[Brandon] You missed that…

[Brandon] All right. Relationship as subgenre. I have yet to write a book where the relationship isn’t what I would call the number two thing for the book. I don’t think I’ve written one where it’s the number one thing yet, because of the style of stories that I tell, but it’s almost always number two. Most important. Most important subplot if you will.
[Dan] I actually did just write one where relationship would be number one. It was John Cleaver five. I think that’s the only one I’ve done it, though.
[Brandon] This is just of, to me, vital importance. Because I’ve often said, stories depend on how good the characters are, right? You can have a great setting, but if your characters are lame, it’s just not going to be a good book. So how those characters rub against each other and how they throw off sparks and how they come together or break apart is a big part of what makes a story work.
[Howard] That level of, and again, we’re not talking necessarily romance, but that level of character intimacy rarely floats to the number two point in the Schlock Mercenary stuff that I’m telling. It’s always there in the back story somewhere. I know that these people are friends. It’s difficult for me to bring that to the surface, because making punchlines and comic drops there means tearing apart relationships in ways that I just don’t want to. In ways that I don’t think serve the story.
[Mary] My stuff is clearly relationship driven, but with things like Valor and Vanity, it’s a heist novel. So the relationship is…
[Brandon] Right. The relationship evolves, but the main plot of the story is the heist. Definitely.
[Mary] This is the kind of thing that we’re talking about when we’re talking about using relationship as a subgenre, that your overall structure, the big driving structure might be one of the other elemental genres, but then you bring in this relationship thing. You can do these relationship beats, you can do them in something that is sustained all the way through the book or you can also do them just in smaller sections. Like the… You can have… One of the ways you can make a main character more sympathetic is their relationship with another character, like with their mom, with their little sister, with their dog.

[Brandon] So let me ask you this. A couple weeks ago, I really hit the point that promises… Fulfilling on promises, making sure that your story is progressing along the lines of what your main story is. How can you keep relationship, for instance, from… How can you make it be part of the story without being the thing that drives the whole turn into act two, all of this sort of thing? How can you keep it from taking over? Do you want to? Do you not want to? How do you approach this?
[Mary] So, I think… We touched on this a little bit in the previous episode on relationship, where we talked about the external stresses and what they reveal about the relationship. That’s one way that you can manage that with relationship as a subgenre, is that you’re focusing… The external stresses, that’s the major plot. That’s the thing that’s driving it. It is revealing things about the characters, but you are not making the problem between the characters the driving point of the plot. So Lethal Weapon is a relationship, but they have a bad guy to stop. That is the dri… That’s the action, that is driving… The evolution in the relationship between the characters happens because of the driving action.
[Brandon] I would say that it is a matter of where you kind of put your beats is a very big point in this. Because I’m thinking about where I’ve used it as subgenre. Often times, we have our big climax and there is a beat right before and a beat right after with the relationship that kind of says you don’t have to worry about this right now. I understand this is unresolved, right before the big, but we are going to shelve that for this. I’m going to put it aside. Then we’re going to come back to it. Afterwards, all right, now that we have time to actually think, how do I feel about this person? How do I deal with these emotions? Those two beats work very well as kind of this sort of bracketing that I often talk about where I open one problem and then I try to close it in reverse order that I’ve opened the problems.
[Mary] Which is the way I handle it when I’m doing things with MICE quotient. That the nothing code idea. I think that you’re absolutely right that one of the things you can do… There’s a tendency for people that the first thing you encounter is the problem that you latch onto. So I think that if you have the character problem be the second thing that you… Honestly, one of the other things that will affect the reader’s idea of how important something is, is how much time you spend looking at it, how much time you spend with it. So if you want it to be the primary driver, you spend a lot more time, a lot more words on the page, but if you want it to be secondary, you just don’t give it as much page time.
[Brandon] I’m thinking of a lot of action films I’ve seen where they resolve the relationship plot right before the big act three climax of the film.
[Dan] Well, the reason I think a lot of them do that is because as you are trying to find ways in which these two different threads can matter to each other, especially in buddy cop kind of action movies, we need to learn to trust each other. Once we have that trust, then we can finally win. Because we have to work together.
[Mary] This reminds me of the episode that we did with Lou about the Hollywood ending. Where he was talking about how you have the relationship character… Err, the viewpoint character, the antagonist, and the problem. It ends… The hero needs to reconcile with the viewpoint character, defeat the villain, and resolve or solve the problem. The closer you can have those things together, the more… The stronger that punch is.

[Brandon] One thing I don’t think we’ve talked about before is… We act like one thing has to be main, and another thing has to be sub. Really, there are plenty of hybrids. I think that a lot of our buddy cop movies are true hybrids, 50/50. I’m thinking of one of my favorite relationship films, which is Beverly Hills Ninja.
[Brandon] You were not expecting that, were you?
[Mary] That was not where I was…
[Dan] That was not the last word that I thought would be in that title.
[Brandon] Chris Farley and his brother. It’s a story about the competent older brother and the screwup younger brother and their relationship and how together, at the end, the younger brother… The older brother needs to accept that the younger brother is competent and give him the you are good at this. Then the younger brother becomes competent in the way that the older brother…
[Dan] Requires, in order to…
[Brandon] Requires, and together they defeat the bad guys. This is a really good braiding of this concept, where it’s these two plots together overlapping their climax.
[Dan] One of the hybrids that is coming to mind that I like a lot is the one where you have been a different kind of plot and then, at the end, you realize, “Oh, this was a relationship story the whole time” kind of idea. The… For example, Catch Me If You Can where it has been a chase movie, it has been an investigation/mystery movie, and we realize this relationship building between protagonist and antagonist… That’s the whole point by the time we get to the end.
[Brandon] Those are dangerous, but really powerful when they work. The danger in that, again, is this idea of you as the author, listeners, as you are creating this, missing your beats because what you really have to do is you have to do the stage magician thing. Where you are having a beat on the action plot and also having a beat on the relationship plot while distracting them with the action plot. You’re basically feeding them their vegetables while they think that they are eating a smoothie, like my wife does with my children.
[Brandon] Putting the vegetables into the blender and saying, “Oh, I’m going to make it green now.” Right? Because you like green things. It’s that… You’ve got to be giving them… But when that happens and you can have that reversal, it can be very powerful in those sort of hybrids.

[Howard] Well, in talking about this, I’m considering my own work and realizing that in many cases, when we talk about relationship as a subgenre, the relationship elements… When we talked about relationship two weeks ago, I mentioned act two disaster, relationship falls apart. When relationship is a subgenre or is a seasoning element, some of our favorite beats from relationship stories, the moments where these characters are standing in support of each other, might be the only piece that we get. It’s just there to say, “These people have a relationship and it’s solid.” We’re moving with the story here on a higher level. We’re not going to do a relationship crisis, but we have to tell you that these two people are friends and will… They can depend on each other. At that level, I just… I bring that up because there are a lot of stories where the big crisis is “Are these two people going to be friends?” Then we have a sequel and we have to tear them apart in order to have the sequel, and I hate that. I just…
[Brandon] I agree.
[Mary] This is something that actually buil… A moment that actually probably goes in ensemble later, but one of the things you’re talking about is demonstrating that they have a shared history. You reminded me of the scene in Firefly where they’re cutting the apples open. They cut the apples… They always cut their apples open because one time, there was a grenade in an apple. That… You don’t ever have to see that, it’s just… It’s that “Oh, there’s back story.”

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Dan, you were going to tell us about And I Darken.
[Dan] Yes. This is a really cool book by Kiersten White. It’s called And I Darken. It is a historical fiction about Vlad the Impaler with the awesome alternate history twist that he’s gender swapped. So instead of Vlad, we get Lada, the female Vlad the Impaler. Other than that, it’s pure historical fiction. It is fascinating to watch. One of the other authors that I was talking to about the book described Lada as surely in some language there’s a word that means cuddly and terrifying at the same time.
[Dan] She is immensely lovable and you want her to win, but she’s Vlad the Impaler. She’s really scary. It’s just great. What I really love about it, and the reason I wanted to use it as the book of the week today, is that Lada has a younger brother who is everything she is not. He is weak, but he is beautiful. He knows how to talk to people in a way that she can’t. Watching the two of them hate and love each other and grow up together at the same time is really, really cool. It’s a wonderful book. And I Darken by Kiersten White.

[Brandon] All right. So let’s talk just a little bit more about how to do this in a story. Specifically, let’s assume you don’t have a lot of time. Like, Howard, you don’t have a lot of time for relationship stuff in your stories. How can you make the time you have potent, powerful, and work with the reader despite it maybe being overshadowed by other events?
[Howard] I… There… The… The tricks that I use are analogous to the things that writers are going to use. I will build a scene and I will put faces in the scene with facial expressions on them that suggest that these two people have a feeling towards each other that is a countercurrent to what is being said. Maybe they disagree, maybe they agree. There is a subtext here and in most cases, the reader is going to tell their own story about that relationship, and I have to let them.
[Brandon] It’s very interesting in your stories… I don’t know if you do this… I’m sure you do it intentionally. It’s broader [garbled]
[Howard] I will tell you if I do it intentionally. What is it?
[Brandon] I can tell the relationship between two people by the joke. I read the punchline, and I see what type of joke it is. That tells me how these people are. These two characters. Is it a biting joke? Is it a gentle ribbing? Is it a us against them joke, us versus environment joke? That first punchline, when you put two people together in one of your stories tells me a ton.
[Howard] Yes, that’s deliberate. I will not do a comic drop between two characters where their status is stable and having it break would be story critical.
[Brandon] Right. Well, you also don’t seem to do as many comic drops when you’re first re-introducing us to someone or where you’re giving us new characters. You wait for a little while, and then they start pulling the rug out from underneath us, unless at the beginning, they’re in a somewhat antagonistic relationship already.
[Dan] Well, I love the story you’ve got going on right now, one of the little side plots is two alien scientists who are studying something and who are constantly tearing each other down. I love that. That’s the kind of thing you couldn’t do with the normal crew, because they have to work together, they have to get along, they have to preserve [authority?]
[Howard] When I started writing some of those jokes, I realized I do not have anybody in the cast who can tell these jokes. It is too late in the story for me to introduce new characters who are story critical, but I bet I can get away with pulling people from a previous story and putting them in a new relationship and running this little side plot for a while. It sounds like I’m getting away with it. Whew!
[Dan] It’s really working.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s fun.
[Mary] One of the other things, along those lines, because I’m thinking about other relationships besides romances. But the Han and Chewie relationship. That is a relationship that is conveyed to us in a very compressed amount of time. One of the things that they do, which is, I think, a really good trick, is Han and Chewie are arguing with each other, and someone else says something. Han is like, “No. You do not get to say that to my friend.” So just that… And it’s something that you can do in moments. Set up the fact that these two people are close enough that they can argue with each other, like old housewives. But no, no, nobody else gets to do that. The other moment which I think establishes relationship beautifully is in Ironman, with Agent Coulton and Pepper, when he’s getting up, and she’s like, “And how’s the cello player?”
[Howard] The cellist.
[Mary] The cellist. That says these two people are close enough that they know each other, they know the relation, the dating, they know the outside of this business relationship. It’s done with a single line.

[Brandon] Now, I’m going to give a reminder that when we’re talking about it is a subplot, even if it’s very minor, one of the curiosities to the reader has to be how is this going to develop. That’s what makes it a subplot rather than just seasoning of relationships. So in this case, that’s seasoning of a relationship, but the relationship of Coulton to the team is not. That’s getting more into ensemble, but it’s vital to that story.
[Howard] Well, but the thing with Coulton and his relationship…
[Dan] Coulson.
[Howard] Coulson. Thank you.
[Mary] Yeah, Coulson. Sorry. That’s my fault.
[Howard] The thing with Coulson in this relationship is that at the time it is shown to us, Tony doesn’t care. Tony’s like, “Wait. Who’s Phil?” “Phil Coulson.” Tony doesn’t care.
[Brandon] That’s a good point.
[Howard] Then we have our moment where he is hovering there in front of Loki and says, “His name was Phil.” And I realize, “Oh. Tony now cares.” That relationship came forward and that was really stirring for me. It didn’t feel like ensemble stirring, it felt like that [garbled – intimacy that we need?]
[Brandon] That’s exactly… I mean, and you just hit it exactly. That’s the distinction. Right. Because it does go somewhere in that story. That’s what makes it… I mean, it’s plot central. Even though it’s a subplot, it’s a minor thing, you’re really not even paying attention to it until that moment.

[Brandon] We are out of time. I want to give us some homework. My suggestion to you for homework is that two weeks ago, if you did what Dan told you, you took a romantic comedy and you highlighted the beats of this romantic comedy. I want you to take that outline that you’ve done, and if you didn’t do it, go do it. I want you to change it into a different kind of relationship. I want you to take these same beats and say, “All right. Now it’s mentor student. And I’m going to build the same story around this, but with this very different relationship.” Or I’m going to be buddy cop, or I’m going to be mother-daughter, or I’m going to be whatever. Take this, take the same beats, and transition it to a new type of relationship.
[Howard] So you take the beat map from While You Were Sleeping and write Lethal Weapon with it.
[Brandon] That’s right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.