One way to understand the difference between competitive plots, journey plots and relational plots is to think of body, mind and heart. Please click on the tab “On Stories” above to read about plots of competition and journeys. I encourage you to do so.
The Body: Plots of competition are physical and active plots, not to be confused with action plots. Whether the story is external (action oriented) or internal (character oriented) these plots turn on “what happens.” When you have a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist, the plot will move on what they do, often to each other. Whether they are in a rivalry, an adversarial relationship or one is an underdog, whether it is man against man, man against nature or even man against himself, there is a fight going on and it will express itself in some outward form, though what happens.
The Mind: Journey plots, on the other hand, might better be called plots of thought or learning if you will. These are the plots that explore life, the universe and everything. That is not to say nothing happens here. The quest, escape, the rescue, or thrillers all have lots of action, but at the same time they are journeys of discovery. Thus in the end the detectives understand something about life and perhaps something about themselves that they did not grasp at first. This is especially true of plots of exploration, rising or falling, transformation or coming of age – all journey plots where something is learned in the process.
The Heart: By contrast, plots of relationships are emotive plots, emotional explorations that depend more on what people feel than what they think or do. Again, a plot where nothing happens will be dull, dull and no story at all; but in relational plots the whole motivation and response to what happens is more emotional than anything else.
Caution: Competitors think and feel. People on a journey do things and also feel. And people in relationships are not mindless, inactive emotional blobs. We are simply talking the emphasis of the story here.
The essential relational plot is two people in relationship (duh)! Of course, one of those people might be something other. Both the Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves might be described as plots of relationship where the person finds themselves in a strange culture with no means of escape. There is a lot of emotional turmoil and angst in the process of getting adjusted to a new way of life.
Sometimes, the two people might be siblings as in Rich Man, Poor Man, or in some of the work of Jodi Picoult like My Sister’s Keeper. Generally, though, the story is about a couple and again, generally it is about one man and one woman. That does not mean it is necessarily a love story. There is also fear, hate (falling out of love), anger and tears as well as faith, hope, joy and satisfaction. There is also lust and to be sure, some people make money writing pornography.
The relational plot explores the emotional life that drives our relationships. Yes, most plots of relationships are written and read by women who understand relationships in a way most men will never comprehend even if you spell it out and hit them on the head with the proverbial sledge hammer. But don’t discount someone like Nicholas Sparks who in a single love story can encompass most if not all of the above emotions and more.
The basic relational plot starts with a spark between two people: eyes across a crowded room like Rhett and Scarlet in Gone With the Wind or escaping a nebulous enemy like Charlie and Rose in the African Queen. Notice, neither starts with love at first sight (though that has been done, and often enough), but there is a spark of some sort to start things off. Perhaps the best word to describe things is what we say in real life: There must be a certain chemistry between these two people right from the start.
Next comes the obstacles, difficulties and testing of the relationship. Sometimes there is no antagonist, per se, but simply circumstances that get in the way. Where would Rhett and Scarlet be without the Civil War? Sometimes the people are not separated but are still moved through various trials in which their true inner character is revealed, as in the African Queen.
The end may be tragic… or not. People like a happy ending. Despite the innumerable women that die in Italian Operas – even while they belt out monstrous arias – a tragedy need not include death. Rhett reached the point where he no longer gave a damn. In Casablanca, the lovers separated for the greater good. Still, people like a happy ending even if Mister and Missus Allnut end up in the drink in the African Queen. Even when she doesn’t meet him at the top of the Empire State Building – he tracks her down…
Next time, the Love Story versus the Romance.