Shipping and Handling, Part 1: How to write romantic subplots

“So are Ash and Skye going to get together or what?” my mom demanded after reading the latest installment of my Syzygy series.

I stifled a groan. “Do you think I’m that predictable?”

“No, I just know you.”

Meaning she knows I’m a total sucker for a good ship. Since childhood, I’ve endured tedious book series and shark-jumping television shows just to see whether two characters finally get together. My fascination evolved into an accidental study of the twists, turns, and heartbreaks that characterize good romantic subplots in fiction. So I’m launching a new post series on “Shipping and Handling”: the craft of romantic subplots in fiction. In this inaugural installment, we’ll identify the three fundamental relationship constructs and how they fit into the broader scope of a story.

Romance + Novel ≠ Romance Novel

First, let’s establish the difference between subplot ships and romance novels. In a dedicated romance novel, the love story is the plot. The protagonist’s primary arc concerns the development and ultimate attainment of a relationship: a love quest. Readers never suffer any real doubt that the characters will get together. Ships, conversely, thrive on doubt. Because they function as a secondary thread to the core narrative, the characters don’t have to get together for the story to resolve. Like a flirtatious lover, romantic subplots tease but guarantee nothing. This tantalizing question of “will they or won’t they?” is the magic ingredient that makes ships so compelling for readers and writers alike. As Oscar Wilde observes in The Importance of Being Earnest, “the very essence of romance is uncertainty.”

There’s an easy way to determine which category a book represents. Imagine the story without the relationship. Does it still function as a narrative? Remove the central relationship from any Harlequin paperback and there’s not much left. Compare that to my debut novel Blue Karma. If the chemistry between two of the protagonists dissolved, we’d still have the journey of three young adults fighting for survival and justice in an environmentally ravaged world. Threads of romance add dimension, interest, and character, but the basic story structure remains independent.

The Other Kind Of Love Triangle

Just as there are archetypal characters and tales, there are archetypal ships. Flick around prime-time TV some evening and you’ll spot several of them. (My particular favorites are crime dramas in which investigative partners make eyes at each other over body bags for season after season. I’m a sucker for the slow burn.) Three common subplots appear time and again, a trinity of shipping structures I call the “Love Triangle”:

shipping-love-triangle

  1. Unrequited Love. The protagonist’s heart is fixed on a seemingly unattainable love interest. Sometimes this works in reverse, with another character who worships your protagonist. In either case, the smitten one must prove their worthiness to their chosen partner. Their emotional journey resolves when they either earn the love of their crush or mature beyond that particular desire. Example: Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games.
  2. Opposites Attract. My personal favorite, commonly seen in partner-lover ships. Sparks fly from the moment two characters meet, lighting up every scene. Typically drastically different personalities (or occasionally the reverse, far too much alike) they bicker incessantly and may even profess dislike for one another. But they just can’t sublimate their magnetism. Resolution occurs in two stages: the characters admit the attraction to themselves and then to each other, usually after some growth and pride-swallowing from both parties. Example: Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter series, or Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
  3. Mutual Interest Obstructed. Characters may fancy one another when the story starts, or they can arrive at this point from one of the other two setups. They want to get together, but something stands between them and their happily ever after. It might be an external barrier (physical distance, belonging to feuding clans, etc) inner conflict (such as the protagonist’s belief that a relationship would endanger his/her loved one) or a combination of the two. Only by defeating both the plot impediments and their own insecurities can these two finally embrace without fear. Example: Ellie and Everett in my fellow indie author Anela Deen’s Insurrection serial.

Each of the three structures can function on its own, or forms #1 and #2 can evolve into form #3. Let’s go back to The Hunger Games example. Katniss and Peeta begin as Unrequited Love—he’s nursed a crush on her for years, but she’s too focused on survival to respond with much enthusiasm. By the end of book two, she realizes how much she’s come to care for him, just as the antagonist’s forces take him hostage. The subplot shifts to Mutual Interest Obstructed, as Peeta’s imprisonment and the psychological damage he sustains threaten to destroy the pair’s relationship.

From Ship to Story

Like besotted hearts beating in rhythm, ships typically mirror the progression of the larger story, with significant relationship developments corresponding to major plot points. Thus the resolution of the relationship becomes inextricably tied to the main conflict. If we superimpose a romantic subplot on the classic plot diagram, you’ll see what I mean:

plot-diagram-with-romance

The Harry Potter series gives us a nice example of how this works. Ginny Weasley first spots Harry Potter as he boards the Hogwarts Express to begin his magical studies (inciting event). Over the next several books, their connection slowly develops: Harry saves Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets; she evolves into a spirited supporting character who fights alongside him in the Department of Mysteries (rising action). Harry finally reciprocates her crush and they start dating, but when Death Eaters infiltrate the sanctuary of their school, Harry realizes their relationship will make Ginny  a target for Voldemort (crisis). (See how their loveplot structure shifts from Unrequited Love to Mutual Interest Obstructed?) Harry must defeat the Dark Lord before he and Ginny can be together (climax). With destiny fulfilled and the wizarding world safe from evil, Harry and Ginny eventually marry and have a family of their own (denouement).

The PBJ Principle of Romantic Subplots

Is that all it takes to write a romantic subplot? Not quite. “Ship” is just an abbreviation of relationship, and relationships needs the right people to make them work. Years ago, a savvy friend advised me on what to look for in a relationship. “You need to be like peanut butter and jelly,” she analogized. “Delicious on their own, but together they are absolutely awesome.” When I started dating my Laddie a short while later, I realized what my friend meant: we’re not each other’s appendages, but independent entities who complement each other magnificently and bring out the best in one another. This “PBJ principle” is crucial to a good romantic subplot. Crafting strong characters, and understanding how they relate to one another in these three classic constructs, will help create the perfect pair to enrich your narrative.

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3 thoughts on “Shipping and Handling, Part 1: How to write romantic subplots

  1. amidtheimaginary says:

    Writing love is such a careful dance. The pacing has to work (too fast and who will believe in it) and it has to have obstacles to make it interesting (angst, please!), and a satisfying resolution — even if they don’t end up together. Bittersweet is sweet too. So hard to get all these things to fall into just the right place, but that’s the fun of it too. I’m with you, stories should have a bit of love in there somewhere or it just feels like it’s missing something vital, at least for me.

    Like

    • j.k.ullrich says:

      Absolutely. Love doesn’t occur in a vacuum (even in sci-fi). Characters fighting for a relationship in a harsh world that doesn’t care about their hearts makes their romance all the more precious and worth rooting for.

      Liked by 1 person

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