The Secret Ingredient of Can’t-Look-Away Fictional Relationships

Almost without exception, fiction revolves around relationships, whether it’s a romantic couple, parents and children, friends, or a man and his volleyball. This is so because that’s how life works. Fictional relationships are the crucibles that test our characters’ mettle and show what they’re made of. They might be able to lie to themselves, but it’s really hard to fake out those around them. If you want to really get to know your characters, you do that by allowing other characters to get to know them.

But there’s more. There’s a secret ingredient to make sure fictional relationships don’t just lie there on the page.

Did you ever stop to think about why it’s considered the “kiss of death” for romantically inclined couples to finally get together on a TV show? On the surface, this makes no sense, since viewers are totally rooting for them to get together. But if we dig down just a little bit, we realize the problem is that once these characters commit to each other, the uncertainty in their relationship—the conflict—is totally gone.

This applies to all catalytic fictional relationships, not just romantic ones. If you want your character’s interaction with someone to power the plot—and, on a more basic level, to be as interesting as possible—then that relationship needs to be given a good shot of conflict.

Put characters at odds. Give them conflicting goals. Have them mistrust each other. Even as they like—or even love—each other, even as they may yearn to trust the other person and be completely vulnerable, keep them off balance. If you want to keep your story going, then don’t let them totally be what the other person needs them to be. The moment the conflict ends, that’s happily-ever-after and the story’s over.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What conflict drives the most important fictional relationships in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. That’s so true! There’s been several tv shows I’ve watched that, when there’s no longer really anything keeping the couple apart, you lose interest. It’s not something you usually think about, I don’t think, but you definitely have to keep that in mind if you want people to care about the people you’re writing about.

    My protagonist wants to be with the guy, and he wants to be with her, but she made a promise long before she met him, and that promise keeps taking her farther away from him.

  2. This is why I suggest ending a book or TV show, AFTER the characters finally get together. The audience has been imagining them as a couple since the beginning, therefore, I am sure they are fully capable of filling in the blanks themselves. Chances are, they might like their own version of what happens better than what the writer could come up with.

    My protagonist is infatuated with a guy who she knows is trouble, but in the end she makes the right decision because she can discern between her head and her heart.

  3. Classic example of that was in Moonlighting – that old Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd vehicle. You knew they would eventually get together and lost interest immediately after they did. My present WIP leaves it open ended as to whether they get it together. The reader is allowed to assume or doubt.

  4. My favorite TV pairing was Booth and Brennan from Bones… when they finally got together I just stopped watching. The writers did a good job with adding a kid for extra conflict and adding a storyline or two that added good conflict to the relationship… but it just wasn’t the same.

    That’s when I realized that sexual tension is the type of tension needed for me to think of a story as good… the type of conflict between two characters that I would love to see get together, but know it would be disastrous if it happened.

  5. Jim Jacobs says

    Conflict is an essential part of a good story. Once the conflict is removed (in this case in a relationship) the story needs to end. The more interesting stories I’ve enjoyed recently wrapped up quickly after the conflict in the relationship was resolved.

  6. My protagonist lives an eternal conflict with another character that is based on bias, (false) hate and attraction at the beginning, and which evolves in doubt and probably love during the story. Everytime they seem to find a balance, something comes up and renew this conflict, making it stronger, thus making their relationship stronger, too.

  7. @Britanny: Great example of how to allow a relationship between two people who care about each other, while still providing realistic obstacles to keep them apart.

    @Karoline: One of my biggest pet peeves with television is that the overarching plots are so obviously being dragged out for as long as they possibly can be to extend the life of the show. Even great characters and good conflicts eventually suffer as a result. And it’s a crying shame from an artistic (not to mention sheer entertainment) standpoint.

    @Mike: I tend to like endings that are just a little bit open-ended. Life is full of doubt; I like to see a little of that reflected in stories.

    @Kristen: Admittedly, series writers are in a tough spot. They want their story to go on for as long as possible. But they can only drag out the pre-get-together phase so long before it becomes ridiculous. Then, pow, kiss-a-death!

    @Jim: Absolutely. Conflict is what keeps your character from reaching his goal. Once he reaches the goal, the story is over, and the book (or show) has no good reason to continue.

    @Rita: That evolution of conflict-resolution-conflict-resolution can create not just compelling plots, but also some great opportunities for really digging down and exploring the characters.

  8. Wow. You just nailed EXACTLY what was wrong with my current novel. I’ve been wondering why it seems to be sort of dead in the middle, but it is because there is no character conflict after they reconcile in the middle, so that totally kills most of the interest. I have been trying to figure this out for months, but just could not put my finger on it. Thank you!!!

  9. Good point. Someone may watch a TV show to see if the two characters will ever end up together and get frustrated when another episode ends and they still haven’t. But if/when they finally do, that’s usually the series finale because the show’s writers know it’s over. But on the other hand, if it drags out for the life of the show—often years and YEARS—that in itself can be frustrating. Fiction writers have it much easier to only stretch it out over the length of a book.

  10. I must say, whoever said that there is no conflict in marriage or an established relationship, has never actually been there. If someones plot dies because of boredom because the two lovers finally got married, then they need to inject a BIG dose of reality into that story line because marriage and established relationships are/can be a simmering pot of conflict that can, quite often, boil over and create quite a mess.

  11. @Joanna: Isn’t it great when you finally identify a nagging problem? Glad to have been of help.

    @Lorna: Standalone books offer a much more solid beginning and end to their story arcs. But if you’re writing a series of books, you can end up running into the same problems as you would on a TV show.

    @Steve: Many shows try to do just that, but too often the problem is that the conflict changes. The previous goal/obstacle=outcome was all centered around the will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together angle. Once they do get together, that plot ends. If the show is to continue, a new goal/obstacle pairing has to be created. This can certainly work, but, because it’s, in essence, a totally different story, it can end up changing the tenor of the show – and alienating its fan base.

  12. Katie, it has been interesting to see how this works with a couple of shows that I have watched like Bones and Castle. The writers have been very creative in new relationship obstacles in both of those shows.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Downton Abbey’s plot developments immediately came to mind when I read this, which perhaps lead to my frustration with the third season, considering how they resolved the lack of romantic tension. Great post, thank you!

  15. The third season suffered from a lot of problems, some them contrived by problems outside the writer’s control (e.g., actors leaving).

  16. Of course this can be carried to far. I’ve read book where I just didn’t care anymore because the relationship had to many problems but for the most part this is a great tip!

  17. Fiction is all about balance. Any rule, taken too far, will get us into just as much trouble as if we ignored it altogether.

  18. I found this out with my last draft of my ms, which was part of the reason why I’m now on draft #3! I let my two main characters give into their feelings too soon and it killed the story for me, I lost all conflict and tension, then when I tried to build some back in, it failed miserably. So I’ve now changed it that although they’re attracted to one another, outside influences stop them from acting on it and it won’t be until book 2 that I’ll let them finally be together, by which time their relationship won’t be the main focus of the story.

  19. That is very true. Someone already mentioned Bones and I think Castle is another great example of this. I spent so many seasons wanting them to get together and when they finally did it was amazing. After that the writers had to throw in accusations of cheating to maintain the uncertainty that just made Castle and Becket look dysfunctional.

  20. We gotta be *mean* to our characters – even we desperately want them to have whatever it is they need.

  21. @Tyler-Rose: I had that in mind as I was writing this. Sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I’d much rather see a story end cleanly, rather than drag on too long.

  22. First off, I would take issue with Kristen’s assessment that “Bones” lost its appeal after Brennan and Booth got together–the situation that LED THEM to get together was atypical, and then there’s still a lot of conflict between them because Bones is an atheist and Booth is Catholic. Besides, the appeal for me has always been the crimes, and they continue to be creative. There. Got that off my chest.

    Doctor Who (which I know you’ve yet to see) takes a unique approach to the relationships since, except with the case of River Song, the Doctor isn’t in a romantic relationship, so the focus is more on his relationship with the companion(s) — and in some cases, the companions relationships with each other. Seasons 5 – 7.1 really exemplified this.

    For my own projects, I have two sets of characters where the protagonists have difference in values/morals as stumbling blocks (and these aren’t necessarily books that will be CBA material, BTW.) Another project, I’m still trying to workout what the conflict between my romantic leads since they’re going to be married. Like Steve pointed out, there’s a bunch of fodder for conflict in marriage, but it’s something I’ve not tried, and with the exception of the “In Death” series by J.D. Robb, is not something I see much of in the series I read.

  23. I actually *love* stories in which there’s some sort of romantic tension after the couple has been married. There’s so much more at stake for a couple who are already committed. But it requires a shift in focus, primarily because these couples are almost always going to have weighty backstories together.

  24. I completely agree with everything you said 100%. Although it can be tempting as a writer to put two people/things together, the conflict amd tension is vital. It’s what keeps us as readers at the edge our seats and begging for more like a pack of starving wolves. That’s the way real life works as well. We don’t always get what we may want, there are always roadblocks, whether physical or mental to overcome. When that moment of “reality meets desire” happens, it makes the outcome that much sweeter because the journey wasn’t easy to begin with. Excellent video.

  25. I’ve always liked comparing novels to journeys, and, like any journey, it’s the ride that’s just as important, if not more so, than the destination. Readers want to share that journey with our characters. If we dump them off at the destination too soon, they’ll feel cheated every time.

  26. This is to-the-letter how I felt about Jim & Pam’s relationship on The Office (yes, there are other reasons to watch, but they were my kryptonite).

    Without giving anything away, I feel like Fringe (J.J. Abrams) is an example of a TV show relationship structure that gets reinvented every season – it remained suspenseful even after the main couple, Olivia & Peter, “finally got together.” Despite commitment ending the “will-they-won’t-they”, obstacles constantly arose to keep them apart; memory loss, kidnapping, prolonged absences, death, etc.

    Commitment can actually heighten conflict, and the conflict doesn’t always have to be focused on the relationship (i.e arguing over kids, religion, adultery or other threats to the marriage).

  27. Haven’t seen Fringe, but it sounds like they did a great job. Creativity goes a long way to toward busting stereotypes.

  28. Thank you for the tip. I keep wanting to marry my couples off. Maybe I need to increase the conflict level. LOL This is making me rethink my current writing. Thank you again.

  29. In the story I’m brainstorming on right now, the conflict is that the married couple don’t trust each other with their secrets. Their work takes them away from each other a lot, and they also have some powerful enemies, so they think they’re protecting each other but it’s hurting their child.

  30. comment as posted on fb, reposted here so i can be in the prize running 😉

    finally able to get to here to comment (read the video transcript on my phone en-route to work this morn) :

    my particular challenge, one i slowly came to accept and now enjoy more than i thought i would, is finding the interest, and writing about it, on life “after” happily ever after

    there really doesn’t seem to to be much problem finding “something” – only, as in almost all fiction probably, conveying what i see and feel that’s so important and moving for me

    also, re Downton Abbey, I didn’t feel a lack in any of the seasons’ episodes due to lack of conflict – there seemed to always be “some” kind of conflict going on at all times, from various levels; sometimes internal, sometimes external, and at times on both levels

    so there’s my tiny two cents worth 😉 and i mean all the above only as where i’m at right now, and certainly not as any kind of “dogma” or “should”

    so best wishes everyone 😉

    thanks k.m.

    ps – just now going back over the prev comments, very interesting thread, thanks again 😉

  31. @Tim: Could be your romantic couples aren’t the central relationships. Maybe the conflict comes from elsewhere?

    @Galadriel: Sounds perfect!

    @adan: Yes, I can’t say that the recent DA suffered from lack of conflict. Lack of continuity occasionally, among other things, yes. But it’s good at piling on the conflict from every direction.

  32. I can really see what you are saying here though my first reaction was the same as Steve’s – anyone who thinks that conflict ends once a couple commit to each other has read far too many fairy tales or romantic or other genre books that end once the happy couple commit to each other ;). I’m convinced (after almost 25 years married) it’s learning to deal with conflict within the relationship rather than the absence of conflict that makes relationships strong and lasting.

    This whole discussion is so relevant to the series I’m writing as I want to explore past the happily ever after endings. Now I can see that this may be a challenge. However,in the first two books – the conflict between the protagonists relates not just to the whether they will get together (overcoming the opposition and scheming to keep them apart) but also the threat to succession to the throne. And in the third book it is scheming of the antagonist that threatens to rip them apart (as well as their own misunderstandings and failings).

    I think one film series that transitions well from the tension of whether the couple would get together to dealing with conflict in the marriage is the Shrek movies. Maybe it works because the first movie in many respects was an anti-fairytale.

  33. really like jenny’s comment above, “it’s learning to deal with conflict within the relationship rather than the absence of conflict that makes relationships strong and lasting.” –

    and (finally) reading the really interesting thread of comments to-date, made me try to think of TV couples that endured, as couples, and, i believe, what was different re the storyline was, they were already couples when the TV series began: Lucy & Desi, All in the Family, etc.

    so like K.M. has pointed out, the story changes when the couples “gets together” finally, but, “if” the story begins with the characters as a couple, then…

    hmmm, gonna have to think on my own thought there 😉

    loving this thread!

  34. Even though I struggle with (and even sometimes dread) the romantic tension thing, I always seem to wind up with a romantic subplot in my stories. For my current WIP, I know I’ve got some work to do – the couple got engaged at the end of the first book, and they’ll be married by the end of the second book, but it’s going to be a trilogy. Part of the tension comes from (and will come from) their adventures together (it’s a fantasy story) and the different ways that each of them handles situations. Thanks for the reminder about giving readers some excitement and success, while still keeping some tension to keep it interesting.

  35. My current WIP is about a guy received a magic genie as a kid. He’s in love with her, but his relationship with her changes as he ages and matures. At the same time, he falls for a girl and marries her, but tensions arise as he won’t acknowledge he loves his genie (whom his wife doesn’t know about).

    As for carrying on the story after the couple gets together, I thought the Shrek series did well with that. The first movie is about getting together; second about conflicting family values; third about parenthood; and fourth about differing views on life goals and values. Although I’m not super enthusiastic about the third and fourth movies, I think the writers did a good job of keeping the conflict in Shrek and Fiona’s relationship as it changed over time, without rehashing the same romantic conflict in each movie.

  36. My protagonist is the main character and her main conflicts are within herself. She is a plain child Queen, who wants to be a beautiful princess…and she has to solve a puzzle of sorts to save a boy. Obviously, this is a children’s story.
    Your information is helpful in looking at specific relationships and how the conflict/s carry them forward. Good stuff, thank you.

  37. Juliet Nicole says

    Is it still conflict even if it’s not surface conflict? From the other guy’s perspective, his relationship with the MC is good. But the MC is inwardly struggling with his loyalty to his friend and to his job. He has to keep the struggle a secret because he’s an agent.

  38. @Jenny: I used the illustration of romantic couples committing to a relationships primarily since it’s the chief offender in these sorts of situations – and because it was on my mind thanks to a TV show I recently watched. However, the precedent holds true in all catalytic relationships – whether it’s entirely non-romantic or whether it’s romantic couple who have been in a committed relationship for years.

    @adan: Lucy and Ricky are a great example. No lack of conflict there!

    @Grace: What came to mind as I was reading your description of your stories was The Mummy and its sequel. Not the most high-brow example, of course, but they did a decent job of altering the conflict in the second movie, in which the main characters have already been married for years. The focus of the conflict is not on the evolution of the relationship, but on surviving the adventure. (Granted, the sequel is nowhere near as good as a result, but it still works.)

    @ED: Great premise! I’m envisioning I Dream of Jeannie meets Ted. :p

    @Patti: Nice. I like how you’ve spun the traditional beautiful princess stereotype into something new and interesting.

    @Juliet: So long as the reader knows about the conflict, it counts. In this instance, since we’re undoubtedly in the MC’s head, we see his perception of the conflict, rather than the other guy’s.

  39. Thank you for this post. I was struggling with questions you just answered.

  40. Glad the post was useful!

  41. My protagonist’s main conflict is with herself. She values loyaty over everything, yet she needs to betray her government, her family and her friends in order to save her child.

  42. Almost all stories feature an element of inner conflict. It’s my favorite kind of conflict since it’s all about character development.

  43. That is so true! I recently read a novel where the mc got the man she wanted about halfway through the book, and that was when I started skimming the pages looking for something interesting to happen. Ok, they did have a little crisis towards the end but that was still too many pages of happy couple walking around just being happy to keep my attention. The rest of the book felt like a waste of my time, honestly. This video made me realize why I fel that way, thank you.

  44. As authors, we can sometimes fall into the temptation of allowing our characters to be happy. But “nice” isn’t in our job description. It’s our responsibility to make our characters suffer all the way until the very end.

  45. I’ve been so quiet these past few months KM, ’cause my dissertation’s taken a lot of time, haha. But I always look up for your advice, knowledge and experiencies. Awesome video, as always.

    I’ll restart writing in a week!!! I’m nervous to face the blank page again!

  46. You can do it! The hardest part is the first few words. Once your fingers are typing, the rest comes much easier.

  47. In my case it would have to be the conflict with the protag’s mother, who she yearns to have love her unconditionally. Second would be the attraction for a boy she grew up with.

  48. I hadn’t realised how true this is. This is a major part of my WIP. My protagonist has rebounded into three relationships and identifying the opposing poles of chemistry will help me no end. Highlighting this aspect will help me develop the relationships. Thanks.

  49. @martiink: Both are ample sources of potential conflict.

    @Skippy: Glad it came in handy for you!

  50. Thanks! It is so true and so useful 😀

    Conflict can be there i many levels and this is one of the most importants!



  51. No conflict, no story. And because most stories boil down to relationships of one sort or another, we could no relations, no conflict, no story.

  52. Haha, true! That´s the main lead of every story really. But is also true we don´t need conflict everywhere. That can be frustraiting too.

  53. Anonymous says

    Sorry I strongly disagree w/this. This is exactly what’s wrong w/American television. It’s so friggin predictable ala Scandal. That’s what killed Who’s The Boss they drug them two out getting together for so long by the time they did you’d quit watching ages ago. Good writing circumvents the need to needlessly drag out a story. My example in this case is As Time Goes By staring Judy Dench. When the program began airing Gene & Lionel weren’t a couple. Could you imagine watching that show for all those years them never getting together, Pahlease? And I’m sorry but leaving open ending stories is just lame & lazy. Don’t make the reader do your work for you.
    & Y does this thing want rights to my first born just to leave a comment. Would’ve signed in w/a name but didn’t have an options so had to leave a Anon comment.

  54. @Anonymous: As Time Goes By is a great example of how authors can continue conflict in a relationship after the “happily ever after.” It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. It’s just that it often *is.* Most shows are built around the sexual tension of will-they-or-won’t-they. Once they *do*, the show’s conflict, as set up, is suddenly over. In these cases, the show often has to reinvent itself to maintain any kind of conflict between the leads (and, often, what we end up with is false conflict). But when a show like As Time Goes By does a good job of setting up the *possibility* of conflict beyond the get-together, they’re able to perpetuate the natural conflict of a naturally evolving relationship.

  55. Hi K.M.

    You’re so right in everything you say. Your post made me think of Monica and Chandler in Friends. I used to really like Chandler’s character because he was portrayed to be unlucky in love. As soon as he got with Monica I went straight off him. I preferred Ross and Rachel’s tangled relationship then. Stable love and romance is great, just not in T.V. shows or books!

  56. There *are* places in fiction for stable relationships, but never as the core conflict driver.

  57. Yes conflict is drama. “Happily ever after” was always the end of those children’s fairy tales, and also of romance books and films.

  58. There’s a reason the story ends when all the characters are happy – and it isn’t just to give the reader warm fuzzies.

  59. Anonymous says

    I think you are one of the most articulate writer/mentors I’ve ever read. And, here, I understand your point. BUT, can’t a story be very powerful with some intermittent moments of blissful, even soul sharing connection, followed by the inevitable interfering factors. Take Romeo and Juliet an example, Shakespeare in Love, and (dont’ laugh) The Man From Snowy River. For me, those moments of connection, however, short lived, allowed the audience to share spurts of the extreme energy of connection, and to make the hoped for “what might be” more concrete and enticing–even while storms on the horizon were clearly threatening to intrude–and did intrude. I’m guess I’m asking whether you would agree the arc doesn’t have to always be a single action from NOT TOGETHER to TOGETHER, and can involve temporary interludes of intense connection leading to a more permanent outcome? Ken M

  60. Absolutely, 100%, totally agree. Every story needs moments of resolution (or semi-resolution) within its overall quest toward final resolution. Most of the “happy” moments we’re seeing in the stories you’ve mentioned are sequel scenes, in which the characters are reacting to previous actions and the outcome of those actions. The key is to always have tension brewing. For example, in Shakespeare in Love, even when Will and Viola are happily together, both they and the viewers know it’s just the calm before the storm.

  61. Particularly useful, looking forwards to coming back.

  62. My characters are always rather flawed and even very damaged so insecurity is ever present and so is the past. There are always things that can not be reversed scars that can get a man/woman rattled by just pointing at them. So I never do all moonshine and roses. Sometimes as much as the love each other the can not stand one another. Undying love is preferable and the reader may well know it but it shouldn’t just be obvious and immediate.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I love scarred characters. Those pressure points in their pasts come complete with a host of interesting character development opportunities.

      • Its probably horrible of me but their issues and scars are partly what attracts me to them. I usually end up disliking characters with a perfect life. Its goes so far as simply being unable to write them in any important role. Which can be restricting. However I find that flawed characters falling in love is more rewarding to read.

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