With all the hubbub about romance, friendship arcs are often an afterthought. That’s too bad, because many stories have wonderful friendships at their core. To rectify that, I’ve written directions for three types of friendship arcs. For our purposes, this is an arc that builds or strengthens a relationship that is platonic, equal in power, and not defined by familial bonds. However, most relationship arcs are easily adapted for any type of relationship.
1. The Instant Bond Arc
In Lilo & Stitch, the girl Lilo is eccentric and has trouble making friends, so her older sister lets her adopt a dog. Meanwhile, the wanted alien Stitch flees to earth. After getting hit by a truck, he’s taken to an animal shelter. Lilo adopts Stitch thinking he’s a dog that talks. Stitch gives Lilo much-needed companionship, and Lilo teaches Stitch to be a better person. However, law enforcement comes looking for Stitch, and Stitch’s wild behavior makes life difficult for Lilo and her sister.
The instant bond arc is for friends who have an instant connection but soon encounter obstacles that threaten to tear them apart. Because it’s harder to generate conflict and tension for these arcs, they generally work better alongside a higher-stakes external arc. However, it’s not impossible to use them as the throughline of your story.
Show Why They Need a Friend
First, prepare for your friendship by creating a big hole that it can fill. This is especially important for viewpoint characters; take at least one scene to demonstrate the need for friendship before introducing the friend. For non-viewpoint characters, deciding what they need from the friendship will help you depict them and make the friendship feel more compelling.
Good options for needing a friend include:
- Loneliness: This is the tried-and-true need. But if they’re lonely, make sure you understand why. Are they locked inside or living in a remote location? If not, why aren’t they making friends with the people around them? You might have another issue underneath the loneliness.
- Lack of emotional intimacy: They have plenty of friendships but not deep ones. When they have a bad day, they have no one to talk to. When they face a dilemma, they have no one they can ask for discreet advice.
- Feeling different: No one else they know is like them. Other people aren’t interested in the things they’re passionate about, and no one experiences the same feelings of discomfort that they do.
- Lack of respect: Despite their best attempts to fit in, other people are always aiming microaggressions at them or simply ignoring them.
While it’s good for a protagonist to be an underdog, avoid making their peers into comical villains. It doesn’t take deliberate malice to make someone feel unwelcome, just hurtful ignorance.
Give Them a Warm Introduction
Plan a special introduction for your characters that demonstrates how they meet each other’s needs. A new friend might:
- Climb through a window to get to a protagonist who is locked inside.
- Notice when the protagonist is down and ask if they can help.
- Show fascination with a hobby that everyone else scoffs at.
- Demonstrate that they understand what behavior is respectful and supportive.
After they click, it’s time to bring in the obstacles. This is the tough part for the instant bond arc. Often, it’s easier to use the outside influence of an external arc to separate them.
- Parents might disapprove of their friendship.
- The friends could find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle.
- One of them might be going away soon.
- One or both of them could worry the friendship is causing too much trouble for the other person.
If you have a big external plot, make sure both friends have a reason to be involved in what’s happening. However, you don’t need an external plot if their friendship isn’t perfect. Once the new friends get to know each other, they might discover that not everything about their new friend is sunshine and roses. This can lead to their first fight.
- As the friends get closer, trust issues and fear of emotional intimacy could rear their heads.
- They might discover they have significant differences in values or ideology.
- One might engage in behavior the other disapproves of.
Let Them Stew
Since these friends only met recently, these obstacles may feel insurmountable. Assuming the friendship is over, they can spend a little time apart. That will teach them how much happier they are with their new friend around. That’s when they decide to do whatever it takes to overcome their obstacles and save the friendship.
If your arc is short, this step can happen after they encounter their first obstacle. For a longer, meatier friendship arc, let one or more obstacles escalate in intensity until they finally call it quits. Just don’t forget to keep showing why they’re good together.
Make the Friends Prove Themselves
Show both characters working together to overcome the obstacles they face. In doing so, they should prove how much their friendship means to them. That might mean:
- Swallowing their pride to apologize.
- Bending over backward to meet the other’s needs or preferences.
- Making a sacrifice or taking a big risk to stay together.
2. The Buddy Cop Arc
In Zootopia, Officer Judy Hopps is desperate to solve a case before she gets fired. She needs the help of someone with street smarts, so she blackmails con artist Nick into assisting her. In solving the case together, they learn to empathize with each other’s struggles, and Nick starts helping Judy because he wants to.
The buddy cop arc is for characters who don’t want to be friends initially. They need a common interest that compels them to work together, but as long as you have that, this arc can work as the throughline.
Force the Characters Together
The tension in a buddy cop arc comes from the difficulty the characters have interacting. That means you need a reason they must interact instead of going their separate ways. While they might have clashed in the past, this should be the first time they’re forced to truly deal with each other.
- They could be students or coworkers who have a joint project.
- They might be new roommates or step siblings.
- They might each have a skill or asset that’s essential to solving a problem they both face.
For more ideas, see my list of ways to bring characters together.
Give Them Vast Differences
A great buddy cop arc features characters who are foils for one another. If one’s gloomy, the other’s chipper. If one’s a bookworm, the other sticks to video. If one’s afraid of standing out, the other wears a bright red parka. They don’t need to contrast in every conceivable way, but a few important points of contrast will make them a stronger pair.
Aside from colorful personality differences, they’ll need something that creates enough friction to make working together difficult. That might include:
- Conflicting interests: The characters have goals that put them at odds. Perhaps one character needs to practice an instrument while another needs silence to work. Maybe one wants to rebel against the system while the other is trying to follow the rules.
- Mutual distrust: Each character is expecting the other to double-cross them at any time. Whenever they have to coordinate, they end up in a tense negotiation over who goes first, who takes the most risks, and who gets to hold the MacGuffin.
- Incompatible methodology: The characters want to accomplish joint goals in different ways. One might want to make split-second decisions while the other wants to talk everything out before decisions are made. One might want to keep quiet about their situation while the other wants to ask an authority figure for help.
- Personality clashes: The characters have communication styles or personal preferences that put them at odds. Perhaps one character is bossy while the other character reacts badly when someone tells them what to do. Personality conflicts can be difficult to implement; for more ideas, see my list of personality clashes you can use.
Demonstrate Why They Should Be Friends
Despite your characters’ contentious differences, the audience should be rooting for them to bridge the gap. That means showing why they are better off as friends. If they are working on joint goals, simply working together more effectively can provide a reason they should get along. However, the friendship arc will be more meaningful if they get something long lasting and personal out of it.
- Their friendship-in-progress might meet any of the needs I listed under the instant bond arc. Add some positive interactions that demonstrate this before the characters find themselves at odds again.
- They might have something important to learn from their differences. If one character always follows the rules and the other always rebels, the audience will realize that they could both use a little balance.
- They could have complementary strengths and skills. One character might deal with a lot of stress, doubt, or anxiety while the other character is great at providing the right emotional support. One character might have a habit of walking into dangerous situations while the other is a great bodyguard.
Show Them Bonding
Next, it’s time for the characters to start warming up to each other. If you are using an external arc to provide tension, you can do this without worrying if they’ll have enough problems to keep up the pace. In that case, a good rhythm is:
- The characters gain appreciation for each other’s skills.
- The characters realize they make an effective team.
- The characters start showing more trust in each other.
- The characters begin bonding activities, such as sharing personal stories and providing emotional support.
If the friendship arc is your throughline, you’ll need to create layers of problems for them to get through. That way, once they conquer one issue, they’ll move right onto the next. For example:
- They start by sabotaging each other, pursuing their own interests while disregarding what the other person needs.
- They agree to a truce, but they have completely different ideas about what compromises are reasonable or what they’ve even agreed to. This leads to another fight.
- They draw clear boundaries, but though they are strictly following them, it makes both of them unhappy. As a result, they might start snapping at each other or encounter stress-induced problems in other areas of their life.
- They learn to be more flexible, keeping an open line of communication and anticipating each other’s needs. They finally discover that once the animosity is gone, they like being together more than they thought they would.
Make Them Choose to Stick Together
Since buddy cop characters are initially forced together, the final step is to free them to go their separate ways. At that point, the characters must take proactive steps to ensure they remain friends. Maybe a new roommate gets a job that enables them to rent their own place, then decides to rent an apartment in the building across the street. That way it’ll be easy for the new friends to continue making dinner together on weeknights.
3. The Falling Out Arc
In The Fox and the Hound, Tod and Copper live next door to each other and are great friends. But Copper is a hound puppy who is soon trained in hunting animals like foxes. When Copper’s fellow hunting dog gets hurt chasing Tod, Copper blames Tod for the accident. Bent on revenge, Copper and his master chase Tod into a nature reserve. However, when the two are attacked by a bear, Tod comes to Copper’s rescue. In turn, Copper stands in the line of fire to prevent his owner from shooting his friend.
Use the falling out arc for friends who go through a rough patch. For this one, it’s helpful to have outside circumstances that make their disagreements more contentious, keep them in proximity, and provide tension in the beginning of the story.
Establish Their Friendship
For your audience to root for these friends to repair their relationship, you need to build emotional investment in the friendship before the characters have their fight. That means opening with at least one scene where you hammer home why they’re great together. If you have external arcs to provide tension in your opening, consider waiting until the end of the first chapter to split them up.
- How do they support each other? Show that your characters anticipate each other’s needs and proactively care for each other. Maybe they notice subtle signs their friend is upset and offer to listen, or maybe they remember to bring an extra umbrella because their friend always forgets one.
- What special things do they have just between them? Your characters might have a special code they use to covertly communicate, they might be the only ones who enjoy staying up all night to watch Hallmark movies, or they might be partners in crime, yarn bombing the village when no one is watching.
- Do they have stories, in-jokes, or banter? How your characters converse can demonstrate how strong and close their relationship is. Characters who are close often give each other a hard time, because they can trust that this banter is done out of love. They might share some in-jokes, recall previous incidents they weathered together, or tell each other private things.
Your audience needs to see for themselves why this friendship is irreplaceable. That way, when the friends are driven apart, they’ll each have a hole they can’t fill.
Create a Wedge Issue
While your characters have a close and valuable friendship, they should also have a sore point between them. This sets the stage for their falling out and gives their friendship room to grow. You want them to be better off at the end of the story than when they started.
A wedge issue could include:
- Ideological disagreements they can ignore when they’re having fun together. But if they start discussing society or politics, they’ll run into trouble.
- Competition for the same position, person, or something else central to their lives. They might assume they can keep the competition friendly, but that doesn’t mean they can.
- A past incident they’ve agreed not to talk about. Perhaps years ago, one or both of them did something bad. Instead of exchanging apologies and forgiveness, they swept it under the rug. Secretly, they still have hard feelings about it.
Add the Perfect Storm
Once you have a wedge issue, create a situation that brings it to the forefront.
- They could become embroiled in politics, putting them on opposite sides of a social struggle they both care deeply about.
- One of them might get a little more ruthless in their competition and succeed because of it. This would feel like a betrayal to the other person.
- It might look like their past incident is about to repeat itself.
Once this happens, the friends should get in an argument and part on bad terms.
Keep Them Rubbing Shoulders
Next, make sure they have occasional opportunities to interact.
- If they’re both essential to an external arc, they might have to cooperate or face off against each other.
- One character can occasionally seek the other out. They might be worried about their friend or they might hope to convince their friend to take their side without giving any ground.
- If they live next to each other or are part of the same school or workplace, they might just run into each other.
Their interactions should show they still care about each other on some level, even though their disagreement wins the day. For instance, one of them could warn the other to back off before they get hurt.
Give Them Learning Opportunities
Separately, each friend should learn to understand the other’s perspective, if not agree with it. Design some experiences for your characters that teach them these lessons.
- If they prioritized something over their friendship, they might discover that thing isn’t so great after all.
- They could find the faults in their own beliefs and ideas after their solo endeavors fail.
- They might end up in a similar situation to the one their friend was in and discover how tough it is.
Use these lessons to motivate them to renew their friendship.
Make Them Put Each Other First
The characters must both decide that the friendship is something they want to keep. Then they need to prove to each other how important their friendship is. Create a dramatic test for them to pass. That can include:
- Turning against new fellows in order to side with their old friend.
- Giving up whatever the friends were competing over.
- Apologizing, making concessions, and working to make up for anything they did wrong.
- Making a meaningful sacrifice to help their friend or reestablish the friendship.
Once that’s done, the friends should make up with each other. They should also discuss their former wedge issue and finally put it to bed.
Regardless of the friendship arc you choose, end with a scene that shows all of their friendship potential has been realized. They could be seamlessly working together on a new project or just hanging out and having fun.
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