Young filmmakers rarely use a love triangle within their movies. They miss the tremendous amount of conflict and story development that rises naturally from the mix. Their eyes are closed to the internal stories tumbling within the souls of each character and how it externally manifests itself in humor and drama.
Relationship triangles in life happen more times than we admit. But, I’ve experienced the dreaded relationship “box” and found the experience stranger than fiction. However, the true elements from within the experience make great tools for interesting movies.
I spent a couple summers in high school and college at my family cottage on beautiful Bughs Lake. It was a small lake that perfectly reflected its surroundings until the ducks flew in, putting ripples in the water just before dinner.
There were four of us that hung out together. Sue was the most beautiful, the smartest and most charismatic. She had the artistically sculpted legs of a dancer and a personality that could keep people entertained for hours. Her cousin Lori was also hot with well-toned muscles and a deep tan. She was the most energetic of the group and pumped life into every room she entered.
David lived one lake over and joined us numerous times for whatever the day’s activity would bring. He was a jock that looked like a California surfer and turned every head. We had a blast water skiing together and cruising around trying to figure out how we could win the hearts of Sue and Lori.
When the four of us hit the nightlife together, we were the most fun group in town. This was partly due to the group dynamics and we simply had lots of fun, which was contagious. But there was one other factor that stimulated interest. No one knew who might someday have the chance to date whom. It was like being in a lover’s triangle of sorts. But I’ll call it a four-cornered box to make my point to filmmakers.
I wanted to spend as much time with Sue as possible. Although our time together was limited to practicing dance for clubbing and planning how we could connect her with David. I wanted Sue to be happy, so I did everything possible to persuade him, but David was fixated on Lori. And yet, I was the one Lori invited to her prom – Forming a box.
I’m not sure if Sue ever dated David, or if he ever dated Lori, but I was pulled out of the mix. In fact, my family situation escalated with one crisis after another until it culminated in the selling of the cottage. With all the emotional turmoil I faced and the overwhelming responsibilities dumped in my lap, I lost touch of everyone. My last memory of Lori was when I totally messed up her after prom swimming event and never had the guts to apologize.
I never reconnected with David. And as for Sue, I eventually noticed her on stage during a performance my wife and I attended. She and her husband were professional dancers that traveled with the show. I took my wife backstage so we could reminisce for five minutes in between Sue’s performances. My wife felt a bit awkward since Sue was far more gorgeous than I had ever described. But it was okay because Sue and I were never more than summer friends and dance partners.
Love triangles, whether real or only perceived by a character, fuels internal struggles that launch external actions. Some are filled with humor and others drama, but in either case an audience is captivated until the end of the story.
In addition, the director can take turns revealing something first to the audience, while keeping the character in the dark, or vice a versa. This shifting of patterns also creates great interest in seeing the story to its conclusion.
For instance, let’s say our relationship box only existed from the perspective of my character, which is probably true in real life as well. Maybe Lori never liked me enough to date, but couldn’t stand the kids at her school. Because of our group friendship she trusted me enough to escort her to prom. In other words, she was just drawing from our friendship with nothing more in mind.
If the audience knows her request was just one of friendship, but my character was convinced she liked him, he’d find himself in awkward moments – Trying to avoid getting too close for fear of losing focus on Sue. Or, maybe she really likes him and uses the friendship to leverage an opportunity, but he’s so blinded by his false hope for Sue that he misses his opportunity with Lori.
Now, keeping the triangle/box idea in play, we can see that the only person that stands a chance at winning is David. He could realize what Sue has to offer and change his focus, or he could finally get Lori to slow down enough for him to win her heart. The audience then feels sorry for my character, as he slowly walks off into the sunset alone.
The reason love triangles work in movies is because they force the storyteller to reveal things about each character to a depth that stirs the audience. The viewers learn to care about the characters and want to see how things work out. The triangle technique develops the characters beyond the two dimensional stereotypes that reveals both internal and external circumstances.
Multi-dimensional characters always draw an audience and build the fan base for a sequel. The simple interaction between each character’s goals is enough to drive interest for a 90-minute stretch of story.