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


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

And I Darken, by Kiersten White, narrated by Fiona Hardingham

7 thoughts on “11.38: The Elemental Relationship as a Sub-Genre”

  1. The friendly foursome face a ferocious problem, but find that they are still friends, even through thick and thin. And in this episode, they talk about various ways to use relationship, whatever lies between two characters, as seasoning and subplot in your stories! Take care of the villian, and find a friend, too? It could happen to you! So read all about in the transcript, now available in the archives and over here:


    And remember, be kind to your web footed friends…

  2. Wanted to expand upon Howard’s (I believe it was Howard – sorry if I got that wrong) critique – these relationship stores about two people coming together, only to be broken apart in the sequel. I find this to be a big thing in game storytelling – particularly Uncharted. I just finished the first three games and, in every one, Nathan Drake and Elana come together only to be broken up at the start of the next game.
    At first, I thought it was sexism – writers not knowing how to write for women outside of being pursued, but I’m wondering if it is more narrative laziness. What I mean by that is, what’s the most obvious narrative for a relationship – two people coming together. This has the most clear cut climax and easy buildup.
    I have noticed that a lot of movies and games do this. Do you think it is sexism or laziness – or the belief that relationships are only interesting when there is some drama directly involved in the status of that relationship?

    1. Hi Colin,

      I think this is a really interesting question.

      I would say it can be sexism and laziness, but more deeply for me it’s fundamentally not writing a “relationship” so much as a “conquest.”

      Conquest: Boy (occasionally girl) fixates on love interest, does anything he/she can to get/win/CONQUER the other, obtains object of love, done.

      This is a very linear map, and once the character wins, yeah, the drama is gone. The sort of “rubric” for the relationship is “did I get the other person.”

      By contrast, we can’t win actual relationships, whether it is with a person we are more or less stuck with (parent, sibling) or someone we keep choosing to have in our lives (friend, spouse), or someone we have to deal with (coworker, neighbor), these relationships have to be constantly navigated. You may get to a point you are no longer in your parent’s house, but now you need money for school or help with how to pay bills. You may finally get along with your coworker, but your boss changes and this derails your project. Your best friend of forever may be getting married, or moving away.

      I think these obstacles within relationships make for better stories, but only work if you have actually set up a relationship. In the conquest model, there is nothing personal or emotional at stake. Just winning the affection of someone. So yeah, at that point, the only thing you can really do is “unwin.”

      So it’s lazy, and it’s arguably sexist because women-as-objects, but it’s fundamentally just not a relationship below the surface. This structure gender-reversed or with same-sex couples is still problematic and unsatisfying.

    2. They do this because once the two get together, the romantic tension is gone. So the only way to bring it back again is to separate the two. TV series are terrrrrrible with this!

      1. Right, even though anyone who has ever been in a relationship could tell them: the tension doesn’t leave once the relationship begins. It’s a strangely juvenile thought process it seems – like once people are together it’s just “happy ever after” unless something horrible happens.

      2. The only TV series I’ve ever seen do this well was Castle, where once Castle and Beckett got together, they actually had episodes that focused on problems they had as a part of being in a relationship. That only broke down when they were grasping at straws in the final season when Beckett is like ‘I have to leave you so you’ll be safe …’ Ugh, that was bad. I’m glad they ended it before it got really bad.

  3. Dan — thanks for the book of the week recommendation. For all that media loves Dracula, I’m amazed by how rarely his actual history is mined — complex family dynamics, drama, intrigue: everything for a juicy story is right there for the taking! As soon as you mentioned a fascinating relationship between Lada and her brother, my ears perked up; I knew you must be talking about Radu, and that Kiersten White and I were on the same page.

    Were we ever! Marvelous attention to detail and more research than I could ever have hoped for. Heard the episode Sunday, got the book Monday, finished it by Wednesday. I’m pleased to learn we’ll be getting two more while dreading what’s to come.

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