In life, there isn’t ever a happily ever after; not because there isn’t happiness, but because the story never ends. When it comes to relationships, the journey is everything. This is why, 90% of the time, the story comes to a close when the couple becomes official. Writing a relationship, even if it isn’t the central conflict, functions the same way as any story; it requires its own rising action, climax, and resolution. Relationship arcs are their own beast, requiring preparation and an awareness of some unique pitfalls.
Some Call it Baggage
Some people, with their string of ex’s, family dysfunctions, and resulting distrust/false assumptions, get dismissed by potential partners because of their “excess baggage”. When it comes to characters, baggage is back story! Not every character has to have a list of past relationships a mile long, but knowing what they would have gone through can shape what their views would be when going into a new relationship. If a guy went through a previous relationship and was dumped abruptly, with little or no explanation, then he might develop a negative self-image. Or he might react with increased bravado and work hard to build his self-confidence despite the woman’s cruel action. Knowing which one he chose, and how he recovered, will set the stage for how he will respond to a new relationship opportunity presenting itself. Really, the only difference between baggage and back story is that back story has a decided resolution on the way.
Even current relationships have their own story to tell. Observing friends/relatives’ relationships can add a lot of insight into real-life relationship arcs. Couples are often asked “how did you meet?” or “how did you get together?” After the tenth time, they’ve got their story down, and they tell it in a nice, clean, two minute long formula speech at every dinner party and coincidental meeting at the grocery store. Much as they want to leave it at that, every relationship has ups and downs. On top of that, many couples have a goal for their family and are working toward it. Sound familiar? It should, because having a goal and challenges between here and there equals a story in progress. The real story of couples only comes out once they feel comfortable baring their difficulties and speaking with brutal honesty. Asking their relatives something like, “So-and-so are great together. How do you think they got so strong as a couple?” If they’re nosey enough, these bystanders are a wealth of inspirational information. Keep this quiet, though, since research is one thing, and gossip is another.
Crafting the Arc
Creating and editing a relationship arc to perfection is an art unto itself. It is its own storytelling style, so all of the techniques are out of reach for just this post. Relationship Arc | Through The Toll Booth, however, has excellent material for step-by-step people. This is worth a read for anyone including a romantic relationship in their book.
Relationship arcs have their particular danger zones, like any story type. Don’t expect to do it beautifully the first time. Seriously, the best place for sculpting a courtship or deep relationship is during editing. This allows the author to manipulate the scenes with the characters in them to better drive forward the plot, reflect the relationship status, and magnify any themes being woven through the work.
Another danger when including relationship arcs (of all kinds, not just the romantic variety) is the threat of the bunny trail. A bunny trail is a subplot that has not a lot to do with the main plot. It might be interesting, kinda fun, entertaining at the very least, but every subplot should always support, never subvert, the main plot. Their purpose is to add power to the climax and satisfaction to the resolution. The climax is the most common place where relationship arcs fall off the track. Powerful climactic moments are the top of all the arcs involved. Rather than leaving the tipping point of the relationship arc for after the main climax, consider how to tie them together. Events from one, when integral to the other, maintain the unity of the story and prevent the feeling that the relationship resolution is an afterthought.
Character relationships are the meat on the bones of a story. Nothing happens without the interaction of story components, and characters are the components that interact in the most relatable ways. These tools are intended to help the story write itself, setting the story up for realistic and powerful effect on readers.