Happy Valentine’s Day to those of you who wait until the day after to celebrate because of the sales!
Because I know you like to avoid the high price tag that this holiday sometimes brings, I have decided to put together a list of the plot devices that I like to avoid when pairing off the couples in my stories.
I have gone by this first rule for the last five years and it is the one that I have not broken since I made it, nor do I plan to in the future:
Neither character in the romantic plot should be fighting (or extremely angry) when they first meet.
Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe just a little weird, but I’ll explain.
I began my journey of trying of to share my stories through writing six years ago, and at the time I was heavily influenced by YA fiction like the Hunger Games and Divergent. Why does this matter? Because both books featured a lot of fighting and action. I liked that the characters beat people up if they got in the way, so all of the characters that I wrote were just like that. Also, when writing my own stories, I must have been thinking “what better way to introduce two lovebirds to each other than to have them showing off what they do best?” because that was how they all worked. They would meet by fighting each other, or they would get together after one saw the other’s cool fighting skills. It wasn’t until a year or two into my writing phase that I came up with a plot where the two characters met (without fighting) and became friends before becoming romantic. As less exciting as that may sound in my super simplified description of it, I thought it turned out amazing, and it became what I considered my best story(and it still is, although tied very closely with a story from last year). The relationship between the two characters just clicked, like it was meant to be. It took me several stories after that (were I was less than satisfied with every single one of them) to figure out why that one story worked so well. When I did figure it out, every story after that followed that rule and I had similar (although almost none could beat that one) results every time.
Why does that work? Let me set up some scenarios for you:
- Imagine something happening to you that makes you extremely angry, something completely out of your control, like the death of a loved one by someone you hate, a big company coming in and taking everything you own, or whatever would seriously spark your anger. Now imagine that you are out and about somewhere right after that happens, and some random person bumps you and knocks the drink out of your hand. Would you instantly fall head-over-heels in love, or would your anger suddenly be directed at them? Unless you are pitifully desperate to be in a relationship, you are either going to push them out of your way or start yelling at them. This should apply to your story just like it would in real life. No romantic relationship to be seen here.
- Imagine that you are out and about having an awesome day, maybe you’ve been having a great time lately or this is the first good day you have enjoyed in a while. You are texting your bestie and walking down the sidewalk, you accidently bump into someone, knocking the drink out of their hand. They start yelling at you and it escalates into a fight for some reason. Once the fight is over, you are not going to be giving each other googly eyes. Both of you are going to be in a bad mood, not to mentioned bruised up. There wouldn’t logically be a romantic relationship happening here either.
- You are walking down the sidewalk and a person in front of you gets bumped by another person (you get the idea). The person who got bumped goes out of control and starts beating the living daylights out of the other person. Do you think, “Oh wow! It’s so sexy how that person completely lost control over a spilled drink and decided to try to beat that other person to death! It was totally justified!”. No. You are either going to get out of the way before you become the next target, call the cops, or try to break them apart yourself.
- Let’s take this one a bit farther: After the fight is over, let’s say that one thing leads to another and the attacker starts flirting with you, are you really going to want to get within arm’s reach of them? No way! Once again, there is no romance to be found here.
“But my characters need to fight to know that they both share an interest in punching people!”
That’s fine, but let that happen any time other than their introduction.
“My characters do literally nothing besides beat people up! How else would I introduce them?!”
Firstly, if this is your problem, you need to do a lot more development. Secondly, I’m glad you asked. If for some reason fighting is an absolute must for introducing your two characters, there is a loophole: the rule does not state that fighting cannot be in the scene at all, just that the lovers shouldn’t be the ones doing it. My example: I think a scene where a fight breaks out and two other characters (the future lovers) start sharing critiques on the brawlers’ methods, or humorously making bets against each other, would make a great intro scene. It would establish that they both know how to fight, and that it is a topic that they have a shared interest in. Imagine the third example scene from above where someone else walks up, shakes their head at the fight, then looks at you and humorously says, “Such poor techniques.”. Better? I kind of think so.
The second rule I only came up with within the past 1-2 years and I’ve found it to be almost just as important for writing a relationship as the first one. I’ll warn you now that it is going to sound counterproductive at first, but it’s not:
The characters should not be forced to be together, or need each other, for the entirety of the story.
Let me explain this one before you skip over it.
My idea with this rule is that your romantic characters should want to be together to suffer through the things that will happen to them.
There is a commonly used plot where two characters fall in love after they are forced to be with each other for a time, however most of the time that relationship looks like it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I usually can’t imagine the two ever making it past the first year together from the end of the story. I also end up thinking about how they never would have settled for each other if there were better opportunities around. Test if your characters are a good match, ask yourself, “would my characters still be together if they were trapped in a room full of a thousand other eligible bachelors/bachelorettes with the same skill set as the significant other?” If the answer is no, more than likely your story would be better off without the romance.
“Why shouldn’t they rely on each other? Eventually everyone has to rely on someone, this happens in real life.”
You’re right, they do, and they can (and should) rely on each other some of the time, just not the whole time. The reason I added it is because this device is usually used as another way to force characters together. Let me give you this advice: reliance should not be used to get the characters together, it should be used to build the relationship that they already have.
Having your characters rely on each other to get through a bad time is a great way to have them bond. Go ahead and have character A carry character B after they get shot in the leg. Let character B stop character A from committing suicide one night. That’s okay, as long as these kinds of events don’t take over the entire plot.
The main idea to take away from this rule is to make sure that both of the characters choose to be with each other. It makes the relationship so much stronger when they are the ones holding it together, not the circumstances.
The third rule is not something that you always have to follow, but I have found that most stories turn out better when they do:
The characters should not meet by one rescuing the other.
There are right ways to use this plot device, don’t get me wrong, and it is free to use at any other time in the story, just not as a way to introduce the characters. The reason for this rule is because, most of the time, it’s only used to bring out a power imbalance between the two characters, and bringing out an imbalance at such a key point as the intro will set the tone for the rest of the relationship. I’m not saying that all characters should be created equally(some strengths are worth more than others), but I’m a firm believer that if one character in the relationship is lacking something that the other has, they should make up for it in another department (and the things that they are both lacking is best given to the enemy). If this isn’t happening, the weak character is not going to be able to do anything for the plot other than be in the relationship (this is a very bad no no), and the weaker character would be better off at home or dead (or at home about to become dead).
This point ties in with my previous tip, but instead of both characters being forced together because they lack the power to do anything else, it means that one character is being forced to be with the other because of a power imbalance. Imagine a few real-life scenarios where one person is forced to be with another: being stuck in an abusive relationship, being kidnapped, an unwanted arranged marriage, or a ridiculously clingy significant other. Many of these relationships probably started out as something that appeared like a good idea:
“They seemed like a hero before they got mad at me.”
“I thought they were just going to give me a ride so I could get out of the rain.”
“This marriage made my parents proud.”
“They seemed really helpful when I was going through a hard time.”
Ultimately, this is not where your dreamy fictional romance is waiting be found, it’s where nightmares are at.
None of these rules are set in stone, and all of them can be broken if you know how to do it right (or if your plot requires a toxic relationship). These are just plot devices that I have made mental notes to avoid. So, do you avoid any plot devices when writing good relationships? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!