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Fans & Fantasy: How to Build the Perfect Ship

Hello, it's time for your weekly dose of shipping chat. In the past couple of weeks we've talked about the issues facing shipping and its reason for being. And, as always, I've been reading everyone's comments and trying to get a handle on some of the issues facing us. But today I wanted to break with the heavy theme of the column so far and go for a little lighter fare:



So how do you build the perfect ship?

TV shows have been creating supercouples since the days of Lucy and Desi. You'd think there's nothing left to learn in the realm of how to make an audience salivate for more. But shipping has brought to light a desire for a new kind of romance -- one that sizzles onscreen, but never bursts into flame, one that keeps the audience tuning in looking not for hot love scenes or major relationship developments (necessarily) but for subtext and fodder for fanworks and speculation.

So how do you build a romance that isn't? Here are a few of my key ingredients:

  • Make that first meeting a stunner. Instant sparks fly, and not necessarily of the romantic kind. But our characters enter the same room, and all of a sudden it's like no one else is there. They return rapid-fire volleys of dialogue like they've been bantering for years. Their eyes never leave each other's. And something clicks into place, something they have in common or share beneath the surface. Maybe they don't recognize it themselves in their first meeting, but we do, and we want to see more.

    Great example: Hawaii 5-0's Steve and Danno met at gunpoint, and the scene was as tense as a hostage negotiation. Neither trusted the other, and neither could afford to slip up for a moment. But we got a glimpse of what great cops they both were, and by the end of the first scene they'd found a tenuous alliance. It was clear from that point on they'd each met their match. And some of us shippers saw a match of a different kind just waiting to happen.
  • Or maybe it's not their first meeting. Maybe they've met offscreen before. They know each other's names, they already have an opinion of each other. But in this case, they know something and we don't. So it's our turn to speculate wildly as to what they could have shared before they wandered onto our TV screens. A chance encounter? A long affair? A tortured friendship ending in betrayal? Whatever it could be, don't tell us everything. Let us wonder and imagine.

    Great example: Peter and Neal didn't meet for the first time in the first episode of White Collar. They had a long-standing rivalry. But from the first scene they shared, we knew there was more to their backstory than met the eye. The electricity and the sense of high stakes were apparent, and shippers were madly crafting their own versions of the backstory before it was ever shown onscreen.
  • Make them share an intense experience. Doesn't have to be life-threatening, but it helps; hell, make it cosmic. Put worlds in the balance. And our two characters, newly met and already hyper-aware of each other's presence, are thrown into battle together. Why extremes? Because extremes bring out the essence of our humanity, and that's when we're most vulnerable, most desperate to cling to each other for survival. When we see them open up to each other, extend the hand of trust and alliance for survival, we'll see the chance for a bond.

    Great example: Stiles was sure Derek as a creepy serial killer as well as a Teen Wolf when they first met. Derek thought Stiles was annoying as hell. So when Derek ended up with a bullet in his arm, slowly killing him, and it was up to Stiles to save his life, neither of them thought it was going to work. They could barely stop sniping at each other long enough to get the job done. And fans ate it up. So much so that in Season 2, Stiles and Derek kept getting thrown together again and again -- taking refuge from a monster, paralyzed on a floor together, you name it. Teen Wolf being one of the most shipping-aware shows on TV these days, we can only imagine what they'll have to endure together in Season 3.
  • Don't skimp on the day-to-day moments. Not everything needs to be crash landings and explosions. Just seeing how the two of them relate in normal circumstances can be fuel for the shipping fire. It's in the way they chat and greet each other, the easy camaraderie or tense chance meetings. If they're on the screen doing nothing more than waiting in line at the bank, but they're intensely aware of each other's presence the whole time, we'll ship it.

    Great example: Sherlock and John are great when they're solving cases, but they're even greater when they're doing nothing. Or, rather, John's doing nothing and Sherlock is shooting the wall. Or John's writing his blog and Sherlock's looking over his shoulder. Or anytime they try to do anything, and the other can't help but get involved. And that's a good thing for them psychologically, too. We've seen what these two are like when they're alone. When they're together, they're so much better.
  • And say it without words. Lingering eye contact. Mirroring each other's movements. Instinctively moving together. A glance, a nod, as though whatever went unsaid was understood already. These are the ingredients that make shippers salivate. And they can be equally rewarding for those who aren't seeing a romantic or sexual spark -- this is how shipping can enhance a show without turning it into a goopy romance. Let it be there for those who wish to see it.

    Great example: Supernatural's Dean and Castiel have practically made this an art form. Someday someone should count up the number of seconds they've spent just staring at each other. It has to be extending into minutes by now. The way that they stare at each other — and the lack of what Dean calls "Dude, personal space" — tell us they get lost in each other, and that so much is getting said without words.

  • Tell two parallel stories. If one character is looking for redemption, the other is trying to learn how to forgive. If one character feels alone in the world, the other is finding his existing relationships shallow and is seeking something deeper. If one seeks revenge, the other has unresolved anger or grief. Give them a reason to seek each other out, but at the same time, make sure each has his or her own story. Shippers seek out two individuals, not a made-for-TV couple whose story is all about getting together. It's imagining now they might find resolution with each other that fuels the imagination.

    Great examples: Oliver Queen and John Diggle are my new favorite ship. Oliver's trying to fulfill his father's destiny and become the force for justice that the city needs. John is frustrated with the helplessness he feels seeing violence and being unable to stop it within the system. They both find fulfillment through Oliver's transformation to Arrow -- and in John, Oliver has not just a confidant but someone to ground him. In Oliver, John has a way to make real change happen, a way to become part of a greater force than just himself. Their reasons for being together are not quite the same, but they complement each other without ever becoming less than two fully realized, three-dimensional characters with their own lives and motivations.

(Sorry about the prevalence of slash ships above. I invite you to add your own non-slash examples for the above ingredients in comments!)

What makes you start to ship two characters? Is it their stories? Their personalities? An experience they share? Tell us your ingredients for the perfect ship in the comments!

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