Plots of Relationships

One way to understand the difference between competitive plots, journey plots and relational plots is to think of body, mind and heart.  Please also click on the  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 Plot:

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…

The Love Story vs. The Romance

 The Love story and the Romance, what’s the difference?

Basically, a love story can be about anything: a man and a woman, two men, two women, a young boy and his dog.  Did you ever read Old Yeller?  How about a man and his statue – Pygmalion.  And can a puppet become a real boy?  Relationships stretch the emotional muscles and the love story is the basic relationship story.

On the other hand, Romance has a limited range of relationship options.  Publishers have great lists of dos and don’ts that they will gladly share with any aspiring writer.  And while I am no aficionado of the Romance, all of the basic elements of what I am calling plots of relationship can be found there as easily as in any love story. 

Without carving these words into stone, the basic plot is connection, separation, reconnection.  Hollywood put it this way:  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.  To be sure, in the romance novel it tends to be girl meets boy and etc.

Scarlet and Rhett sparked the first time they met.  They crossed paths several times during the story.  By the time they finally got together, frankly Scarlet I didn’t give a damn.  I guess Rhett agreed with me.  It didn’t work out.  But I know my Romance reader has been up nights on occasion wondering if these two are EVER going to get together.

As with all plots, there must be more than just following the formula.  This may be especially true of Romance stories, and especially hard since they are the most formulaic of all genres.  Publishers don’t want innovation, and yet the story must be unique enough to make it rise above the rest.  (Romance slush piles are enormous).  Good luck.

With the love story there is more flexibility but you need to keep the relationship in mind or risk devolving the story into sentimental tripe.  Spooning under the Moon can be a hard write because it has been done so many, many times.

It is possible for the lovers never to separate as in African Queen, or for the story to pick up at the second meeting as in Casablanca.  It is also possible to twist the relationship, as in Jane Eyre where Bronte adds an insane first wife, or a story where two strong-willed lovers attempt to control each other through manipulation or violence.  But as for the basics, consider this plot:

The Plot

The connection.  The story begins with the recognition of the chemistry between two people.  One may resist, but the reader knows it is inevitable.  By the end of the opening, there is a committed connection between the two.  That connection may be anything from marriage to the two not realizing it themselves – but it is there.  The opening ends, however, when whatever it is comes between them.

The separation.  It could be almost anything.  A jealous ex-partner, a terrible accident or disease, prison –just or unjust – anything.  It does not always separate the two physically, but there is something between them, a real obstacle that must be overcome.  This is the testing phase that proves the love is real. 

Generally here the story focuses on the point of view of the active seeker while the other person is passive (waiting to be saved).  In the fairy tale days, the damsel was in distress while the prince fought the dragon.  These days, she is just as likely to be the seeker as he.

The reconnection:  To be sure, sometimes it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes one dies as in Segal’s massive money making “Love Story.”  But generally, and especially in the romance novel, as I have said, people prefer happy endings.  Tears of joy are much more satisfying than tears of sorrow.

Forbidden Love and Temptation.

Temptation may be a plot unto itself, but I include it here because presently it is hard to imagine any other motivation that would make a story.  In our multi-cultural, diverse, non-judgmental (anarchistic – anything goes) society, the idea of forbidding love seems old fashioned.  We have room for it all these days: black and white, Christian and Jew, gay relationships, may-December romances.  So the Minister ran off with his secretary or the Governor his South American hottie – yawn.  Heck, there is a television show about Cougars.  So what?

Lolita can still raise some eyebrows.  Incest, pedophilia, sadomasochism might still be “forbidden,” but for the most part, these days “forbidden is in the eye of the beholder.”  For that reason, temptation is a good opening.  If the participants are irresistibly drawn to each other, though they themselves believe it to be wrong, you may have a beginning.

Historically, forbidden love has been a powerful vehicle for exploring love and for exploring tragedy.  Adultery (The Scarlet Letter) and affairs have been standard fare.  Also, when two groups of people oppose each other and a couple find each other in the midst of that opposition, such a love is invariably tragic.  Imagine a young American soldier and the daughter of a Jihadist.  Imagine the Hatfields and McCoys.  Imagine Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it didn’t work out too well for Romeo and Juliet.  They were in love from the beginning (connected) but all the forces in the world conspired to keep them apart (separated).  They got together in the end (reconnected), almost.  I suppose that is why it is a tragedy, but Romeo and Juliet does follow the basic love story plot pattern.

Another approach to this storyline might be called the impossible love.  Both Casablanca and Cyrano de Bergerac touched on this.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame did a better job because as disfigured as he was, he knew his love for Esmeralda was impossible.  Of course, these days even monsters like vampires are seen as acceptable lovers (though there is some sense of forbidden love there, to be sure). 

Also, keep in mind that social standing cannot be used in “forbidden love” as it might have been in the past.  Yes, it was a scandal when Edward abdicated the British throne to marry that divorced American – and that had a basically happy ending, but these days would people really care?.

The Plot

Like the basic love story, the story of forbidden love begins with the chemistry of two people drawn together, irresistibly.  In this case, though, the wrongness of the attraction or the impossible nature of the love must be made clear.  Then comes the trouble.

Unlike the love story, the center of this work often shows the two people together and to some extent shows what is right about the pairing even in the midst of the wrongness.  Often, it is not the world conspiring to keep the lovers apart so much as the fear that the world will find out, find them and force them to part.

Here is where all the plots are hatched, such as the plot to kill the spouse of the one that is married.  Sometimes they work out.  Often they don’t, but even when they do there are always consequences.

In the final act, the tragedy.  Society does not like to lose.  It is like our soldier and jihadist’s daughter.  Even while he is under guard and facing a possible dishonorable discharge, she is being stoned to death.  Sorry.  This plot rarely, very rarely has a happy ending.

Temptation and the Fall

The Fall is one relational plot which is not (necessarily) a love story.  Falls to temptation, as the Medieval Church knew, can come in many forms: greed, gluttony, sloth, lust, envy, jealousy.  Think Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth. 

1.         Once again I have combined this plot with temptation because that is where it often begins.  It is not simply pride that goes before a fall, but temptation, when we succumb, that can lead us into despair, paranoia, madness and suicide.  When we give into the temptation to greed, lust or envy, (or lying, cheating or stealing), we risk a fall.  Real life does have consequences.

2.         Then again, the beginning might be simply life circumstances that we can all (potentially) relate to such as the discovery of a spouse’s infidelity or the loss of a job.  Think “going postal.”  Imagine a whiskey bottle dragging a person to perdition, as in the lost weekend.  Imagine being “mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  The fall can come when life throws that proverbial curve ball and we get beaned. 

3.         A third approach might be beginning the story on the fringes of society (I might say on the edge of respectable society).  Imagine the loner, the loser, the homeless bum that may be…?  Some people are already living a fallen life.  Others revel in excess and extreme living.  There is no telling what is out there in the dark, or maybe just around the corner. 

This storyline considers the exaggeration of emotions we see when they are set free from normal social and moral constraints.  In particular, fear and/or hopelessness or helplessness (if not madness) are often strong in the story.  It considers the extremes human beings are capable of going to and the excesses that can invariably cause us to stumble and fall.  Again, like last time, society does not like to lose so there often is not a happy ending.  Read Poe.  Redemption, though, is possible.

The Plot

Unless you are considering the third approach above, you might want to start by moving your character from as normal, average, common (everyone can relate) a life as possible to going off the deep end.  To do that, I recommend (for the sake of a strong hook at the beginning) that you begin with some hint or foreshadowing of what is to come.  The opening goes to the breaking point, when the **it hits the fan.  Consider the story of King David.  He is happy, successful, everything is going his way until he catches sight of Bathsheba sunning herself on the roof across the way…

In the middle, we watch in horror as the person sinks slowly or rapidly into their obsession – paranoia, schizophrenia, madness.  Perhaps they don’t fall quite that far, but the condition appears hopeless and we wonder how this person is ever going to get out of this bind.  David tries to manipulate Bathsheba’s husband, and fails.  He finally sends the man into the front lines in battle to get him killed.  Suddenly, David is not only guilty of adultery, he is guilty of murder;  and every step takes him deeper into the pit.

In the end, Othello kills his wife and kills himself.  David faces a rebellion by his own son.  He kills his son and yet, somehow he finds redemption.  There is not necessarily a tragic ending here.  But there will be resolution.  Think of it like a sickness.  The cure may require strong medicine so if the disease doesn’t kill you, the cure might.  Still, there is a chance for recovery.


“’Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before.”  Dickens understood sacrifice as a plot form, and if you look close, everything in the Tale of Two Cities leads to that point.  How many love stories (love triangles) have ended when one of the three realizes their love is hopeless so they sacrifice themselves in order for the couple to escape and live “happily ever after?”

If you really want to understand sacrifice as a plot, though, you really need to read the gospels. 

If last time, in the Plot of the temptation and fall we explored all the horror to which the human race can fall, this story explores the opposite.  Here, it is love, honor, nobility and goodness that drive the final decision.  Consider the father or mother who would willingly sacrifice their life for the sake of their children.  And it need not be an actual life that is given.  It might be family, a way of life, a long-held dream. 

Consider the sports star, growing older, who gives up his dream to train the talented youngster; or the matron who fakes an injury so the young understudy can take center stage.  Consider the film Holiday Inn where Bing Crosby swallows his love so that young woman can go off to Hollywood with Fred Astaire and become the star she is destined to be.  The fact that she returns to him at the end of the story makes his sacrifice no less endearing.

In the movie High Noon, Gary Cooper has plans to retire and marry and live happily ever after when he finds out the bad guy will be in town on the noon train.  He cannot leave the town at the mercy of the villain.  He straps on his gun even though it may cost him his life.  In Casablanca, which I already used as an example of a love story, consider the sacrifice Rick makes for the sake of the war against the Nazis.  And consider how many war stories have been stories of great sacrifice for freedom, love, honor, and all the highest ideals of the human animal.

The Plot 

When a person already has high ideals, sacrifice may be the obvious choice.  When a person is mixed, though, as most are, like Rick in Casablanca, there is struggle to do the right thing.  All the same, the opening of the story must show both the rock and the hard place that the character gets into. 

In the middle, the character struggles with the dilemma.  There should be times when it looks like they might not do the right thing after all.  Remember that people do things for a reason, so motivation is as important to this plot as it is to a mystery.  Don’t let the sacrifice be an unexpected impulse at the end even as you seek to keep your reader guessing.  Yes, it is a bit like walking a tightrope.  Lean too much toward the end and the story becomes, so what?  Give no indication of the possible end and the story becomes Huh?  Where did that come from?

Also, if the person’s life is not at stake, make sure the stakes are big enough to interest the reader.  When we see a person of questionable backbone make the necessary sacrifice when the trouble comes to a head, the story can be very satisfying.  It can restore faith in people and help us hold on in our own lives and know that there is something essentially right in the human race after all. 

The end, if the plot has been played right, will be very emotional.  In contrast to the sometimes exaggerated emotions in the plot of the fall, here you need to be careful.  If anything, the emotions need to be underplayed in order to avoid sentimentality or melodrama.  Many these days would consider Dicken’s “far, far better thing” as over the top. 

Better not to make a saint out of your character either.  Consider the end of National Treasure II:  The man who was the bad guy the whole time gave up his life so the hero could live – and it worked because there were just enough suggestions throughout, beginning with his consideration of his own family honor versus just wanting the treasure for greedy reasons.

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