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3 minutes
September 24, 2015

Understanding The Most Important Relationship In Story

It's not an argument between two people, it's a relationship made up of two people.

With Mercury in retrograde it’s no wonder so many people find difficulty maintaining their relationships1 … of course, here we mean the relationship between the Main and Influence Character—that bit of a story Dramatica refers to as the Relationship Throughline:

The relationship throughline explores the conflicts inherent in the relationship. The relationship may be well established or new. It may be growing or falling apart. It may be there by mutual agreement, by unilateral choice, or imposed by outside forces. It may end in disaster or blossom into something new. The relationship is exciting in its possibilities.

Many writers new to the theory think this Relationship Throughline is an area where the two principal characters argue over the best way to solve the main story’s problem. Rookie move. Taking that approach collapses the breadth of a story and completely undermines the thematic significance of pitting a small intimate relationship against the greater conflict experienced by everyone. In other words, don’t do it.

Bob and Helen

In fact, you can write a Relationship Throughline where the two principals barely share any scene time together. In Pixar’s The Incredibles Bob the husband is the Main Character and his wife Helen is the Influence Character. Their relationship as husband and wife comes into conflict over Bob’s “cheating” activities. His going out and engaging in superhero antics creates a strain on their relationship and in their marriage. It is the stuff he is Doing (their Relationship Throughline Concern), and the things they have agreed not to do, that is the source of the trouble in the relationship.

Many writers confuse the relationship throughline for the characters in it. Though the characters are party to the relationship, the RS is not about the characters as individuals. The RS is about the relationship. This means the RS Problem is about the source of conflict in the relationship. The RS Concern is about the source of general concern in the relationship. The same is true for all other story points in the relationship throughline. Though you may choose to reveal the RS through your characters’ actions and words, the RS is always about the relationship.

The argument between Bob and Helen isn’t about the best way to stop Syndrome, but it is thematically tied to it. It isn’t an argument between one way of solving the main story’s problem and another way of solving it, but rather a clash of perspectives that by their nature (opposing sides) creates conflict in the space between them. That space is their relationship—their marriage—and it’s an essential component of the story.

The Relationship Throughline is not about two characters consistently making an argument over how to approach the big story problem. It’s not about the individuals or their individual takes on the relationship. The Relationship Throughline is about the relationship itself. The sooner Authors recognize the dramatic potential of this Throughline, the sooner we can reap the rewards of emotionally fulfilling storytelling.


  1. No I don’t think the optical illusion that is a planet moving backwards has any effect whatsoever on anything. ↩︎

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