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

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

This week’s video talks about the “kiss of death” in TV relationships and how it applies to your fiction.

Video Transcript:

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

But there’s more. In fiction, there’s a secret ingredient we have to add to make sure that relationship doesn’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, that makes no sense, since viewers are totally rooting for them to get together. But if we dig down just a little bit, we realize that 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 this other person and be on his side, 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.

Tell me your opinion: What conflict drives your protagonist’s most important relationship?

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

    @Skippy: Glad it came in handy for you!

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

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



  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. @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.

  7. 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!

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

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

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

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. Particularly useful, looking forwards to coming back.

  14. 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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