Saturday, October 8, 2011


Note: This is a long piece, because it's an important subject. I wouldn't hold it against you if you decide you've had enough. But if that happens, I hope you'll skip to the end and read the preview of my forthcoming book! And see the cover!

The word "relationship" can mean many things; in fact it's vague enough to mean just about anything where two or more anythings enjoy some sort of relativity. But for the purpose of this essay, "relationship" refers to what goes on between two human beings. Specifically I'm referring to the dyad of love, the coupling that often (but not always) results in sex and/or marriage. The cast of characters is often (but not always) a woman and a man. Adam and Eve.

The relationship of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most common theme of short fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, novels, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for short fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for short story writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go 'round.
(Love, as I've just illustrated, is also a minefield of clichés. I'll get to that later.)
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. No wonder we need a break now and then-go to a movie, read a story. And no wonder so many movies and so many stories are about love.
The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
A relationship is made up of components physical, mental, and emotional. Body, mind and spirit, the triumvirate of elements that make us all human and define us individually as well.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. (I expect the authors of pop psychology don't either.) To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction.
Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Why is it we know nothing about the married life of Eve and Adam before they decided to break the rules? Because they were probably the one couple (unencumbered as they were by parents or former lovers) who had a perfect relationship, a relationship so happy it wasn't worth writing about. Perfectly dull. Their story only gets interesting with the introduction of relationship static: a tree of forbidden delights, a serpent seducer, a guilt-tripping God. At that point the story gets good-so good that we've been re-enacting it ever since, in our fiction and in our lives.
Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clichés. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable, so that your reader will always remember them. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
The same rule goes for your secondary characters: respect them as individuals. They're not just filling pages, they're real people too.
Having said that relationship fiction must focus on the problem areas in the relationship, let me now say that to make the story truly satisfying it should have some other elements as well. There should be more to the relationship than just the conflict, and there should be more to the story than just the relationship. These other elements, which may show up in the setting or the plot or the character development, will help make your story original.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters, Adam and Eve, must make important choices, together and separately-to eat or not to eat, that is the question-and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question (flaming brightly or smoldering quietly) is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but between the couple and the circumstances.

And now, a word from our sponsor. Here's a teaser from my new novel, BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR, which will be published next month. And at the end of the teaser, check out the cover design!

            The place was crowded that night, I remember. Old Nails—he was Old Nails even when he was younger—was down there in his usual place. Louie wasn’t around back then. A different crowd, but you know, crowds in bars are pretty much all the same. Everybody was ready to look at Audrey Connolly, because she was something to look at. But nobody wanted to talk to her, much, because she had the brains of a washcloth and the mouth of a Dumpster, and besides, she was married to Seamus Connolly, and who wants some big bulldozer tearing their arms off?
            So Audrey’s whooping it up and following guys around the place, hopping from stool to stool, and guys keep moving away, and she keeps asking me what time it is, and I’m like, Seamus’ll be here any minute, sure hoping he’ll show up and take this foul-mouth polka-dot bombshell out before she blows the windows out or cracks my mirror with her voice.
            Jesus. So that’s when old Audrey climbs up on the table right in the center of the room. The jukebox is playing Patsy Cline. “Crazy.” Talk about timing. And as soon as the song ends, and there’s silence, and it’s real, real quiet, because everyone in the bar is staring at this, I got to admit it, beautiful nutcase standing on the table, who’s grinning ear to ear, she pulls up her polka-dot skirt as high as it will go, and let’s put it this way: I pour more Vermouth into a very dry martini than she was wearing in the underpants department that night. She yells, top of her lungs, “IS THERE A CONNOLLY IN THE HOUSE?”


  1. You bring up an interesting point - what would the story of Adam and Eve have been had it not been for the fact that they were set up? Perfect relationships may or may not exist, but writers have little use for them. Especially when it comes to fiction, readers want characters who are in trouble, in danger, in mortal peril, besieged, flailing, or otherwise falling apart. Maybe it just helps us feel better about our own lives.

    William Doonan

  2. Relationships will always have ups and downs. The tension that's created by a kitchen draw left opened or someone eavesdropping at the top of the stairs makes for the possibilities of a great storyline. Connections, in writing, has been one of my latest reflections. Thanks for these thoughts.

  3. I enjoyed this post, John.
    It's true; relationships are complex in real life and in fiction. In writing a mystery, we can spice up our story plots by adding a dash of conflict to our characters' relationships.

  4. Thanks, friends, for your thoughtful comments. Bill, I agree: Adam and Eve were set up: don't eat that fruit. Just like Pandora: don't open that box. Just like Belle: don't go in the west wing. The outcome is inevitable: trouble. And trouble is the meat and potatoes of fiction. Theresa, I share your interest in connections, and Patricia, I agree (and am glad) that relationships are complex. That makes them interesting!

  5. John as always good advice. Conflict is what the world rotates on, from County to Country to Sea to Sea, we want to know, how, when, where and mostly why which at times is hard to answer. But, the beauty of Conflict keeps us all moving ahead. Thanks for reminding us of this. Adam and Eve were an unique couple, but you're right, their lives did not become exciting until the third party enters. Great analogy. Augie

  6. thanks, Augie. Always a pleasure to hear from you. I like the way you put iot: "conflict is what the world rotates on.:

  7. Sorry to chime in so late, but this is good advice for any writer, unless there is no relationship in the book. And conflict makes the reader keep coming back to see how, or if, it's resolved. Even the most compatible couples have conflict from time to time. Just ask my husband. Better yet, ask me. :)

    Marja McGraw

  8. Thank you, Marja. Yep, a bit of conflict is necessary for a full relationship, I think. Keeps us thinking, keeps us growing. Think of oysters: just the right irritation from a pesky grain of sand might result in a pearl.