Shipping and Handling, Part 2: The Partner-Lover Tango

Biting her lip, the detective sat shakily on the couch across from her would-be partner. “…I’ll tell you everything.”

The screen faded to black and my cackles spun out with the end credits. “Ah, this gag never gets old. The next episode will be all about how she hooked up with her partner.”

My Laddie nodded at the Netflix splash of the show’s protagonist, placed to become the detective’s new conspirator and love interest. “The old one or the new one?”

“Both, ideally. That’s a classic twist on the partner-lover tango.”

“…Uh-huh.” Rising with quiet dignity, he began cleaning the kitchen before I could launch into a protracted literary ramble about my all-time favorite species of romantic subplot.

WHAT IS THE PARTNER-LOVER TANGO?

Flip around TV’s popular crime dramas and you’ll likely spot a few examples (my favorite case studies include The X-Files, Bones, and Castle). The basic concept entails a pair of unlikely collaborators who, joining forces to pursue a shared objective, form a bond and gradually fall in love. Investigative scenarios are most common, but partners can also be colleagues in a risky venture, allies in a struggle, or involved any other circumstances where two people must rely on one another to accomplish a goal. Their attraction, rarely acted upon until the end, smolders across the span of the narrative. It goes deeper than romance, however; good partner-lover ships follow the evolution of both the respective characters and their dedication to one another.

I’ve studied the partner-lover tango since I was a teenager, analyzing what makes it so successful (no joke, I almost wrote my undergraduate English thesis on the topic.) Between more than fifteen years of fandom and experimenting with the trope in my own work, I’ve identified some fundamental steps of this captivating dance.

X-Files

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in shooting outward together at the same monsters.” (Image courtesy of BBC)

WRITING THE PARTNER-LOVER TANGO

Like a masterfully choreographed routine, most partner-lover pairs exhibit several definable stages in their relationship progression: the initial Connection, the developing Chemistry, and the characters’ evolution as the Core of each other’s lives and consequently the narrative they inhabit. Each of these three phases comprises a pair of attributes, opposing but balanced forces like the characters themselves. Understanding how these elements flow will help you write a compelling partner ship.

1. THE CONNECTION

Necessity brings them together…

Characters in this setup rarely begin willingly. Often an outside force will impose the initial collaboration, such as when Agent Dana Scully’s supervisors assign her the task of overseeing the conspiracy-peddling Agent Mulder, or when the police chief foists the exuberant consultancy of novelist Richard Castle on strait-laced detective Kate Beckett. Rarer, but more interesting, are the characters who elect to cooperate against their better judgment. In my Syzygy series, Ash doesn’t trust Skye when he meets her. Nonetheless, he defies his leadership and accepts a dubious deal with her. Why? Because he thinks she’s the only person who can help him accomplish his goal. Skye has her own equally self-serving motives for working with Ash. This setup emphasizes character agency as they forge a temporary alliance, intending to use one other and get shot of it as quickly as possible. But something unexpected happens when these two comets collide.

…Affinity keeps them together.

That first resentful effort reveals just what a dynamic team the two make. Recognizing their counterpart’s skills, the characters acknowledge that together they can achieve more towards their shared goal. Instead of dissolving their short-term association, they choose to let it continue, settling into a state of mutual (if initially begrudging) respect. That chose sets the kindling for a long, slow burn, and every new adventure adds a new twig to the embers. What keeps this fire burning?

2. THE CHEMISTRY

Continual conflict…

Almost all the partner-lover pairs I’ve ever seen fit into the “opposites attract” structure on my romantic subplots triangle. All three of the television shows I listed earlier match an empirical woman with a somewhat chaotic, hunch-chasing man. Syzygy inverts this pattern when shy, methodical Ash throws in his lot with cunning improviser Skye. Either way, the clash is key. Personalities and approaches collide at every turn (endless bickering is a hallmark of the partner-lover tango). Secondary characters roll their eyes and snigger, because they sense the electricity the protagonists stubbornly deny. Underneath all the superficial asynchrony, however, a truth emerges that even our reluctant partners can’t dismiss.

…constant complement.

Different doesn’t mean incompatible. On the contrary, a key tenet of the partner-lover tango is that the characters complement one another in a way no one else does. Scully provides scientific substantiation to Mulder’s wild claims; Castle’s novelist sensibilities give him uncanny insight into the motives of Beckett’s suspects; Skye’s savvy way of reading people helps introverted Ash win support he sorely needs. This yin and yang interplay creates drama, but also makes the pair indispensable to one another. They are halves of a larger, more capable whole. With every episode or chapter, the partners become more interdependent, not only occupationally but emotionally.

3. THE CORE

Knowing each other’s hearts…

Partnership entails many shared experiences. Every trauma and triumph draws the two closer together. UFOs, gruesome murders, a crucible of page-turning plot twists…when all else in the world goes wrong, they can rely only on each other. The pair survives the story’s direst moments and supports each other’s darkest days, attaining an deep psychological intimacy. No one else can really relate to what they’ve been through. As the plot thickens, so does their devotion to one another:

“We’re sort of partners,” Brennan explains to a colleague when Booth arrives to be with her after an out-of-town accident.

“Man flies down from DC?” Her companion raises an eyebrow. “You’re more than ‘sort of’.”

This exchange elegantly captures the partner-lover tango. Much as they downplay (or outright deny) their rapport, trouble brings them running to each other’s side. The counterpart they once disdained has become the central figure in their universe.

This, I believe, is the trope’s enduring source of fascination: witnessing how two people develop deep bonds of trust and love.  Romance is incidental, even accidental. It is also inevitable, although the characters fight it every breath of the way. Despite their irresistible chemistry, they typically remain maddeningly chaste with one another. Mistake them for a couple and they’ll contradict you, exchanging an awkward glance; imply their connection is anything beyond platonic and they’ll vociferously refute it. The longer they resist, the larger the question looms at the story’s core.

…At the heart of story.

The exquisite agony of suspense—will they or won’t they get together?—becomes the heartbeat of the story, especially in serial fiction. And it can’t carry on forever. Timelines differ between stories, but eventually those smoldering embers must catch fire. Once the partners admit or consummate their attraction, that tension releases. No tension, no tale. So logically, this is where the narrative should end.

Instead, it’s where most television series go awry. Forced to protract the partner-lover tango over an indefinite number of seasons, writing committees contrive ridiculous excuses to drag out the drama. Hookups, breakups, babies, memory loss…the worst one I remember was a character getting infected with a designer disease that was genetically coded to her partner’s DNA, so that if he touched her it would kill him. (What was that illness called? Oh yeah—Shark-Jump Syndrome. Deadly, but pandemic on network television.) Almost every partner-lover story I’ve ever obsessed over succumbed to this pitfall, tarnishing the pair’s luster with melodrama.

Books, thankfully, don’t suffer this disadvantage. Authors know how their story will play out, ending it exactly where and how they choose. We can execute the steps with the patience and subtlety needed to make it irresistible and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. After all, it’s not only the protagonists we must ensnare, but the audience: as the characters unwittingly fall for one another, readers fall for them. This double seduction is why I love the partner-lover tango even more as a writer than I do as a fan!

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