Improving Your Fiction: The Relationship Chart – Part 2

Part 2 of 3, from guest blogger Art Holcomb

By now you’ve had some time with the Relationship Chart for your own story and the example I gave from the movie DIE HARD.  Hopefully, you’re beginning to see some of the depth to be plumbed by truly understanding our characters.

Before we move on, I want to share with you something to keep in mind while you write. In both Story Physics and Story Engineering, Larry has laid out for you the building blocks of great storytelling.  Derived from his work, I want to offer you a universal short hand for describing the true mission of every story.

I got this particular verbiage from screenwriter William Martell and think it’s both elegant and powerful.

He describes a story like this:

A story is when a character is forced to deal with an emotional problem (usually within the character arc) in order to solve an external problem (plot) so as to prevent a catastrophic event from occurring.

Let’s break this down:

  • The Emotional Problem: The character arc as s/he moves from one state to another
  • The External Problem: The framework and mechanism for conflict and tension
  • The Catastrophic Event: The real-life reason to change

The point here is: the larger story (the plot) is there to serve the smaller but more vital story (the character emotional arc).  While things may happen in the plotline, meaningful change – the kind that strike home so powerfully with the reader – can only happen within the character arc, which is created by the conflicts within the story’s relationships. Understanding this is what gives you the power to tell great stories.

So – back to the Relationship Chart. Here are a couple of exercises you can do to deepen your understanding:


Go through and consider each pairing for current and potential relationships. Mark each as they seem to apply.  Are they:

  • Current: Allies, Enemies, Strangers, Lovers?
  • Potential: Allies, Enemies, Strangers, Lovers?

What do these pairings suggest to you?


Now, let’s consider the effect that one character has on another – for each pairing, describe the emotional effect that each character has on another:

For example, from Box A, you would concisely describe:

  • How the Hero makes the Villain feel?  AND
  • How the Villain makes the Hero feel?

(Remember, relationships are rarely equal and never identical.  Look at each one from each character’s unique perspective.  This may take a while, but can be invaluable)

MATCH’EM UP: This one is about the absolutes in your story – the relationships that will not change. Write down:

  • “Peas in a Pod” – Which characters will ALWAYS get along?
  • “Oil and Water” – Which ones will NEVER get along?

(It’s easy to see how the “Peas “will always stand together but are there any circumstances that the “Oil & Waters” could ban together –say, against a greater outside threat?)

Compare this to the answer you gave from Part 1 of the series.  Do you see the patterns developing? Are you seeing how much more there really is to your characters?


Take this new understanding of character and test it against that  little problem story idea you’ve been noodling with – the one you want to write but could not seem to get a handle on.  See if it now begins to reveal itself to you.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Next time, we’ll conclude the series with The Bonus Round – where the questions get more difficult but the insight are priceless.


Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator.  This post is an excerpt from his new writing booktentatively entitled SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!


Filed under Guest Bloggers

6 Responses to Improving Your Fiction: The Relationship Chart – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Improving Your Fiction: The Relationship Chart – Part 2

  2. “A story is when a character is forced to deal with an*emotional* problem (usually within the character arc) in order to solve an *external* problem (plot) so as to prevent a *catastrophic event* from occurring.”

    That sentence alone is worth the price of admission.

  3. Fantastic, Art! I totally agree with Joel. That sentence totally hit me. I wish more writers could understand that!

  4. MikeR

    Yep. This is definitely great advice.

    A story always happens because “something happened.” It might be “the one match that causes the whole thing to explode,” or it might be “a disruption that upsets the apple-cart,” but that “happening,” whatever it is, isn’t really what the story is all about.

    A great story is =always= about the People. “Gone With the Wind” is about Scarlett O’Hara, not Atlanta. The “happening” forces People (that we can relate to), into a situation (that we can relate to), and Forces them (for reasons that we can relate to, even if we despise them and are repelled by them) to become Different.

    We’re “hooked” into a story by the People, who are responding to the Plot.

    And yet, as only the Authors understand, “we made it all up.” The situation was contrived; the “happening,” imaginary, as were every one of the People in the entire cast.

  5. I’m going to pile on and agree with Joel. Excellent, and should be printed and posted above all writers’ desks.

  6. Lara

    That one sentence brought everything together for me. Thank you, thank you! I can’t wait to get out of my staff meeting today to begin work.

    Looking forward to your next post, Art.