Photo: Battle by Ponce de Leon by J. Wilder Bill
Relationships can be described as existing where two people deal with each other. Keeping the connection is difficult, particularly when a writer sets up challenges for the characters to overcome. Whether the genre you write is romance or the relationship is the subplot, there is a method to the madness of two souls finding love. Here, I share tips on how to plan the beginnings of a plot for a blockbuster relationship arc.
Hero with a Main Goal
A relationship begins with the hero having a main goal, which very likely is unrelated to his love life. In the initial stage of his relationship arc, have his words and dialogue refer to his desire to reach his goal. If the love interest mentions her concerns, have his reply address her issue, but circle back to relating to his needs. The hero will actually have more than one goal, but one will be emphasized, while the others will steer him astray. The hero’s main goal can be a moral goal, a personal goal, a career goal, or a relationship goal.
Hero Expresses his Needs
In the first fourth of the story, show the hero expressing his needs through words, actions, and feelings. Create scenarios where the hero’s response revolves around his desire to reach his goal.
We can see in Murder on the Orient Express where Inspector Hercule Poirot has a career goal to reach his destination city before a deadline. He has a relationship goal with the intention of not getting involved with anyone who would prevent him from reaching his goal, thus he is cordial, yet detached, from the other passengers. Initially, we are led to believe, as does the hero, that his main goal is his career goal. We are guided to conclude that his relationship goal to remain detached results from his career being his priority. But, Agatha Christie intends to test her hero by placing challenges in his path, requiring self-reflection by the character as to what his purpose is in having his career goal be his driving motivation.
What we discover is that Poirot has depth, more than he anticipates. When asked by the red-herring antagonist, Edward Ratchett, for protection because he fears he will be murdered, the inspector refuses. To protect a man believed to be a criminal goes against the inspector’s moral goal to restore justice, and it goes against his personal goal to arrive without complications to his desired town. Both of these override his desire to accomplish the duties of his career goal.
Poirot’s action is to decline the money offered for the job of protecting the villain. He feels to do otherwise would thwart his efforts to bring about justice, which is what he tells the antagonist.
Antagonist with Opposing Goal
However, the thirteen train passengers share an opposing goal. Creating an antagonist who has a goal directly preventing the hero from accomplishing his tasks to reach his goal intensifies the tension. The passengers intend to murder the alleged criminal and they desire for their actions in reaching their goal to occur without suffering through the court system.
Agatha Christie squarely places their motivation in contrast to the hero’s by having each side believe or feel they are justified. Note how she further raises the stakes by showing the alleged criminal was found innocent in a court of law, however, the question remains as to whether justice was restored.
The passengers act by evading questions and flat out lying. A moral goal develops a conflict with Poirot being placed in a position to determine whether a crime is ever justified, and whether at times lying can serve a higher purpose than the truth. The passengers ensure Poirot is asleep in his bed and they execute the murder. They feel justified in getting away with murder.
Hero Moves Closer to His Goal
At the end of the first fourth of the story, present a weakness in the hero that draws him farther away from his goal. In the beginning of the plot, Poirot seemingly moves toward his career goal by having pleasant conversations with the others and enjoying his travels. He believes he will arrive to his destination without trouble, and he handles the hiccup of almost being drawn into drama in a way that allows him to deserve peace and quiet.
But alas, when the murder takes place, as much as Poirot wants to leave the crime solving to the authorities, his weakness is in his moral goal to accomplish justice, and he can’t let it rest. Therefore, as much as Poirot states how important it is for him to reach his career goal in the first fourth of the story, his weakness keeps it out of reach.
Complicate the Relationships Between the Goals
Agatha Christie masterfully creates a villain who is a victim, and victims who are villains. The mystery becomes, which side is right, and which deserves to be punished. This reverts back to Poirot’s duty to be unbiased, yet as so often in her stories, he finds himself in a position where he judges the villains, first Ratchett individually, and then each of the passengers, one by one. This is all due to her creating complicated relationships between the goals, which triggers the actions of the characters.
The Hero’s Weakness is Key
As much as the hero longs for one thing, his weakness prevents him from having it. Weaknesses come in many shapes and sizes. The type suffered by the hero establishes the relationship arc because it plays a strong role in the challenges. Now let’s consider the diverse roster of heroes in the Avengers, and label a few of their Achilles’ heels.
Weaknesses Thwart the Goals
Relationship Goal: The Black Widow can’t accomplish her relationship goal to be with The Hulk because he is has the physical limitation of transitioning into a monster.
Moral Goal: The Hulk can’t even consider a romance because he can’t cope with his anger. The Black Widow has no choice but to give him time to work through his weakness, because she is too weak to break out of her emotional barrier and help him heal.
Personal Goal: Poor Loki is insecure about whether his adoptive family loves him, or if he would have been better off with his own kind. He’s so wrapped up in proving he deserves love, he isn’t even in the ballpark of finding it.
Career Goal: Thor finds his one true love, but his duty to protect and save the humans and his subjects is far more important than his finding personal happiness. His superpowers place obligations on him to bring about the better good for those who can’t, which makes his strength his weakness in his relationships.
Obstacles by Antagonist
Aside from the personal demons holding the hero back from reaching his goals, the antagonist creates obstacle after obstacle after obstacle — that’s three, by the way. With each challenge, the hero is provided an opportunity to take one step closer to his goal. He can utilize his time wisely by improving his skills so that overcoming the challenge is viable, yet, he is weak, and his weakness is his greatest obstacle.
Going back to our Avenger analogy, we can see how the Iron Man is prevented from having a personal goal for peace of mind by his antagonist. He dedicates his career goal to inventing weapons that will protect the good guys, only to have those he set out to protect despise him for creating the situations that destroyed the individuals they loved.
Therefore, his strength of inventiveness and generosity provide a weakness in his being unable to foresee the negative effects of his inventions. Although he views himself as giving his gifts to others as a moral goal, he fails to realize how far removed he is from giving what the people want, as opposed to what he decides they need. It is only through the antagonist that he comes to understand he is not as mighty as he thought, but alas, the bad guys make it personal.
Make the Obstacle Personal
The challenges the hero faces prevents him from reaching his goal — enter Iron Man’s relationship goal. The antagonist take out their revenge on his love interest. What makes this a heinous crime is the innocence of Pepper. She is a victim merely because of the man she loves. Her life is in danger and all she wants is to settle down and have peace.
The Strength Creates the Weakness
The Iron Man’s arc expands through his relationship goal being his strongest motivator. He wants to enjoy the peace Pepper persuades him to believe exists. Every time he moves toward a stable relationship, an antagonist demands his full attention, which throws him off that path.
Notice his weakness is a fear of commitment, which puts the steep curve on his relationship arc. He is too scared to invest himself into one lady, because to do so is what makes her a target. His loving another, and reaching for a relationship goal to be loved, creates his weakness and prevents him from reaching his other three goals.
To create a blockbuster beginning, plot your story four times, one for each of the motivations given to your hero: moral goal, career goal, personal goal, relationship goal. Establish an arc for each one. Have each of the goals create a conflict in his ability to reach another of his goals. By building a solid foundation for the first fourth of your plot, you establish the complexities and complications necessary for explosive, off the charts, tension.