Relationships are KEY to a story: The way a relationship evolves and changes is often much of what IS the story and plot.

A character learns and grows and struggles because of interacting with other characters.

Also, interactions between characters are often at the intersection of action and emotions, and these relationships convince the reader to care about what happens to the characters.

RELATIONSHIP ARCS

I love relationship arcs.

As part of my revision process I analyze my manuscript’s relationship arcs. This arc is the up and down between two characters. In the same way that a character has a character arc and a book has a plot arc, relationships also have an arc. I visualize them as the typical plot diagram–with ups and downs and usually a climax.

Similar to a plot arc, a relationship arc will have turning points, reversals, and sometimes a climax. Sometimes the relationship arc is, at the core, also a subplot. (I could also argue that most subplots would be a relationship arc.)

[For more info about plot arcs visit Ingred Sundberg’s Story Structure Diagrams.]

I have found that considering relationship arcs helps me catch all sorts of both plot and character details that need tweaking or sometimes more intensive revision. It also makes me more aware of the relationships between characters.

As I look at relationship arcs, I focus separately on each important and significant relationship in the story. In most cases the relationships I examine are the relationship between the main character and a secondary character.

How do I usually approach each relationship arc?

(Keeping track of the relationship between characters will depend on the writer and the relationship being examined. One can do it as a chart or graph, written out by scene, or in one’s head, or with sticky notes or note cards . . . . . whatever works.)

1. I find every scene where the two characters appear and consider the following questions.

  • Where and how do things change between the characters?
  • What are their actions and emotions?
  • What are the ups? The downs?
  • Is there a climax?
  • Does the other character disappear for a long period of time? (It is fine to have a character not in a series of scenes–but this means the author needs to not forget that relationships develop off-stage.)
  • What is the purpose of this relationship? Is this relationship critical for the story, or is there no change between the characters, or is a character a flat stand-in-character who does not pull his weight?
  • How does the relationship change throughout the story?
  • If this relationship is a subplot I ask myself if there is some sort of interaction that can be layered on top of the main plot line in any scene.

I also consider if these scenes are in their proper places, in the proper order, and that the “right” amount of space exists between the scenes for this relationship.

2. After I have considered all the above questions, I use plot theory and character theory and apply that to the specific relationship I’m looking at.

  • Where is the beginning, the turning points, reversals, climax, change and growth, conflict, and complications of the relationship?
  • If these items don’t exist–is that relationship needed? Or does the missing element need to be added?

3. Emotional points. In addition to the physical plot of the relationship, there will also be an emotional layer. If there isn’t an emotional aspect to every relationship, I question if it belongs.

4. We can also consider the thematic considerations and if possible, make the relationship a mirror or repetition or variation of the physical or emotional plots of the book.

Basically, the Relationship Arc will have turning points like a plot arc and have emotional change like a character arc.

I repeat the above steps with each significant relationship. Don’t worry–in many cases, it can be a fairly quick process. A writer does not need to analyze every relationship. Even laying out the most important 2 to 4 relationships which the main character has can be super helpful.

LAYERS

After looking at major relationships, I look at how and where the relationships layer. By having turning points of different relationships coming frequently, the tension on the page will make the story more intense.

I find that by separating out and looking at major relationship arcs, I insure that each character is needed, gain another perspective on characterization, can fine-tune my plot and keep the tension nice, and well, fix all sorts of problems that arise in drafts.

Relationships and the interactions between characters are often the engine that move the story forward, creating plot, while showing who that character is.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Comments

  1. Sarah, thanks so much for talking about relationship arcs. What a perfect post to follow up my previous post on pacing. I’m glad you’re highlighting how important it is for the arcs of the characters’ relationships to not perfectly parallel the story action arc. I’ve thought about this so much lately when working on my book where a romance develops, but the book is not strictly a romance. The romance must arc, but it can’t in the same exact way that the dramatic action arcs. It’s been a real challenge and I appreciate the thought-provoking questions you’ve asked here.

  2. Fantastic, Sarah! You’re right, relationships are key. The way characters relate to each other builds and suspends tension while it reveals character. But all the relationship threads can be very hard to track. I LOVE your checklist. What a handy tool. I’m printing it out and keeping it on the top of my desk!

  3. Thanks Catherine. I’m glad the timing of my post is good.
    Tami–Thank you. Yes, the threads can be hard to track. I’ve taken different approaches depending on the book.

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