Have you ever watched a film or read a book where the storyteller fails to break up a relationship convincingly? I think it happens all the time. It’s as if the author or screenwriter knows they need conflict, or something to happen, and they choose a relationship failure to do it.
This usually happens when the relationship is not central to the plot. It is normally a sub-plot, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it poorly.
The badly written breakup is often done in one scene with very little build-up in the plot. It makes me distrust the author and everything that’s happened in the book.
So how can a writer end a relationship in a believable way?
The best way to do this is to set up a relationship that could plausibly fail. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but it should be there – in the dialogue, the body language, the interior thoughts. It should be filtered in from the beginning of the book so that it does not come as a complete shock. It should not feel contrived.
Nine Ways To Set Up A Breakup
1. Use the rescuer-rescued relationship
People in healthy relationships can save each other from mistakes and provide comfort when things go wrong. The problem begins when one person is always the saviour and the other is being saved. The rescuer will see the other person as needy and helpless. The rescued person will either enjoy being ‘looked after’ or he or she may begin to feel inferior.
To set it up: Use pressure to put this relationship to the test. When the saviour is needed somewhere else, the other character may feel abandoned. Or the ‘saved person’ could fight back against the over-protective behaviour.
2. Use the avoidance of difficult issues
Most of us would prefer not to deal with difficult issues, and we can get away with it for a while. However, actively avoiding dealing with them will put a relationship under severe strain.
To set it up: When tensions are running high, the issues will surface and it won’t be pretty.
3. Use the changer
People who are always trying to change each other cannot be happy. You know who they are. They say things like ‘Why can’t you be more like __________?’ or ‘If you weren’t always _________, we would be happy’. They are always living in that impossibly perfect future moment.
To set it up: Put them in situations where it becomes clear that their fantasies are just that. Show that the person is never going to change and has no desire to change.
4. Use the family
One of the partners may be too attached to or too distant from family members. This can be used as a believable way of building up tension. If somebody asks a partner to constantly choose them over other family or if somebody shows absolutely no interest in a partner’s family, there will be problems.
To set it up: Use family gatherings to highlight tensions. Allow one character to tell the other how his or her father would solve a problem. Interrupt an important conversation with a phone call from the family.
5. Use tensions over money
The ways people save, earn, and spend money are brilliant pressure points. How much they earn is also a good way to set up conflict. Both partners should feel valued and equal in the relationship. They should both have a say in the way money is spent.
To set it up: Show how the one person uses money to control the other person or make them feel worthless.
6. Use an ex
People who still think about their previous partners or spend too much time with them – on the phone or in person – are doomed to fail in the present relationship.
To set it up: Let the character use the ex-partner as an excuse to avoid the new partner. When the pressure mounts, this will be a contributing factor to the breakup.
7. Use friends
If your friends don’t like your partner, trouble is brewing. Most people’s friends genuinely care about them and they have valid reasons for their dislike. Sometimes, they simply feel threatened by change. Whatever the reason for the conflict, it creates an unhappy relationship.
To set it up: Make it difficult to plan social events. Let the character spend more time with these friends. Watch the fireworks.
8. Use sex
Everything seems okay on the surface, but the intimacy is non-existent. In a healthy relationship, people work on keeping their sex lives interesting and healthy. In a bad relationship, this falls apart. Alternatively, the relationship could be based only on sex. This makes it difficult for the relationship to work on an everyday level.
To set it up: Contrast the couple with a happy, balanced relationship. Show them what they’re missing.
9. Use an age difference
If you need to have a relationship break up relatively simply, allow the people to outgrow each other. The younger person may want different things to the older person and vice versa.
To set it up: Put the couple in new situations where they encounter people who are not used to the age difference.
10 Ways To Build The Tension
- Allow small things about the other person to annoy your character.
- Let the character feel as if they are walking on eggshells around their partner.
- Allow them to argue about morals, ethics, politics, animals, religion. Things that may have seemed abstract or tolerable in the past become important.
- Let jealousy slip into everything.
- Allow a lack of empathy for the other to set in.
- Let the characters stop treating each other as friends.
- Make sure that certain subjects are off limits.
- Show a lack of respect. They could call each other names or mock each other.
- Use body language. Examples: eye rolling when the partner is speaking, crossing arms, or turning your back.
- Use silence.
Even if this relationship is not the most important part of your book, it will be believable when it ends.