In my experience it is not the act of sex itself, but rather the betrayal of trust, that is the true destructive power of adultery. As an affair often sounds the death knell for a relationship, this makes sense that it inspires the strong emotions commonly related to grief. Even if the relationship survives, that breach of trust is a raw, slow healing wound. Sexual betrayal initiates not only a struggle for self-worth and forgiveness, which is an excellent character story, but it also brings conflict to the relationship itself. As character stories and relationships are the focus of the romance genre, this sort of conflict as a plot is a natural fit.
Betrayals can find a home in any kind of story. However, they must be able to be made personal to a character the audience sympathizes with or the audience won’t care. The concept of a traitor in a political or military drama is a prime example. To this day, Dr. Yueh’s betrayal of House Atriedes still resonates because Frank Herbert did not allow the act to be nebulous. Yueh turned on and was confronted by Duke Leto Atriedes, a person we had come to respect. As we learned the reasons for the treachery and sympathized with the doctor, he was betrayed by Baron Harkonnen, a man we had already developed a hatred for. These sorts of machinations touch the primitive part in each of us that longs for safety and order.
The desire to bring order to chaos is what makes betrayal plot lines effective. By its nature, the act of betrayal does the opposite, bringing chaos and uncertainty to an otherwise certain world. People form systems of governance in order to establish hierarchy and rules that everyone can agree to. Treason is a betrayal of this order. We define property, be it physical objects or even ideas, and protect one’s right to make a profit off that labor. Theft, therefore, betrays the concept of ownership. We establish guidelines that help us fairly evaluate people’s knowledge and skills. Cheating is therefore also a betrayal.
As writers, our job is to torture our characters for amusement and profit. Therefore, it makes sense for us to find ways for them to be betrayed and to betray in turn. However, for any sort of betrayal to be effective, it must be both personal and damaging. The POV characters are the audience’s gateways to the world, and for the betrayal to mean something, it must be personal. We want to see it change a character we love, to test them. In part, the popularity and legacy of this plot device can be tied to our instinctive fear of being vulnerable and betrayed ourselves. As writers, how can we help but use that?Tags: Sequence 03: Musical Musings