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. 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.

  2. 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).

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 😉

  7. @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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. @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.

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

  16. Glad the post was useful!

  17. 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.

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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

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