A romance is never just about the romance.
Whether subplot or main plot, a romance plot line is not about the love itself. It’s about the process of falling in love. Now, as we know well from Disney, that process can take place within the space of a single song. Unfortunately, that’s a three-minute character arc. Romance introduced— romance over with. Everyone is bored, let’s get back to the explosions.
That’s why romance is never just about the romance. Romance can be a really quick thing, but we need it to take longer. We need it to cover hundreds of pages, ramping up conflict and tension between characters as they near the climax. If we introduce and finish the romance quickly, it’s ineffective, not worth including. Either that, or really good for a joke.
If left to itself, a romantic plot line would resolve itself in less than three minutes, with song, dance, and birdies chirping. That’s why you can’t leave it to itself. You have to figure out a way to slow it down, while making it feel like it can’t possibly go any faster. You have to create romantic tension.
Romantic tension is what allows a romance plot to slow down and yet remain engaging. The reader knows two people ought to get together, but something is keeping them apart— even though it’s hardly life or death, that much tension can keep the reader reading in this style of plot. How to create romantic tension? One word: obstacles.
As I said, a romantic plot line could resolve itself in moments if it could. Your job is to make sure it can’t. Put something between the two characters that is insurmountable for both of them, and no matter how much they love each other, the romance won’t be able to proceed. Sometimes it’s one character’s dislike of the other (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen). Sometimes it’s a collection of secrets that must be kept (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Ally Carter). Sometimes it’s fear that actions are disgusting to the significant other (Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson). Whatever it is, it’s present— every romantic plot line, if it’s going to sustain longer than three minutes, needs something standing in its way.
You can see why love triangles exist, then. The perfect couple meet and everything is rosy… and then another person stumbles into the mix and all of a sudden the perfect couple aren’t blind to the world anymore. There’s a third wheel, creating jealousy and confusion as one character tries to choose and the other two try to make themselves seem more worthy. Yes, this does count as an obstacle; yes, this does increase romantic tension.
Yes, it annoys people really easily.
Why? It’s an obstacle, just like any other obstacle, and those don’t annoy readers. Sure, it’s sad when the main character is ripped away from his girlfriend and has his memory wiped after being dropped into the enemy camp (Heroes of Olympus: Son of Neptune, Rick Riordan), but we aren’t annoyed at the obstacle itself— we’re annoyed at the person who put him there, who was a minor antagonist anyway. So why do love triangles annoy us so much?
Many obstacles to romance are desires that conflict with the romance itself. If she kisses her true love, he dies (The Raven Boys, Meggie Stiefvater). The romance conflicts with the desire not to see her true love die. In the case of a love triangle, however, the desire that conflicts with romance is just another romance. The main character likes this boy… but my goodness, that boy is intriguing. While in most cases you know the character wants romance, but can’t have it because of whatever it is, in a love triangle, the character can’t have romance because she’s too busy trying to have a different romance. It weakens the main character’s depth, sympathy, and likability, all at once.
Can love triangles still work? Of course they can, if handled correctly. However, even if handled absolutely perfectly, they can still weaken the character. In Emma, by Jane Austen, Harriet Smith is involved in a love tetrahedron of sorts. Because she’s not the main character, she’s allowed to switch her focus between several men within the space of a few weeks. That sort of wishy-washy behavior lowered her sympathy, sure, but she was always a little too silly to be hurt by that. Instead of destroying her character, the love triangles enforce it. In the same book, however, the main character goes through different phases of liking different men. However, she is never considered weak because of it, for she never wanted romance in the first place. The author handles it perfectly for both characters, using the failings of a love triangle reinforce a character rather than destroy it.
However, in terms of a main character, a love triangle is extremely difficult to pull off perfectly. I would say that the best contemporary version of main character love triangle was in The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, and I despised it. Especially when the love triangle comes up in the second book, when the first book cemented the idea that the two characters were in love— it hurts more than it helps. Be careful with love triangles. Make them perfect, or you might have angry readers on your hands.
Well… occasionally there is a love triangle that arises because the original side is blocked-off by obstacles. Rick Riordan does this once per series, pretty much. I have to say, his love triangles work pretty well for me. When one choice is the god of death, who isn’t allowed to engage with humans, and the other choice is a dude with only months to live, the love triangle works (The Kane Chronicles: The Serpent’s Shadow, Rick Riordan). One side is so unattainable, the main character turns to the other side— which is also unattainable. Perhaps that’s the best contemporary love triangle I’ve seen. Not sure.
Does every second book in a trilogy have to have a love triangle? It has to have romantic tension, yes. But a love triangle? Absolutely not. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (Book 2, Well of Ascension, mentioned above) didn’t use one, and the romance carried perfectly. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth, doesn’t use one, and the romance survived. And yet, great authors like Dan Wells, Rick Riordan, John Flanagan, Brandon Mull, Suzanne Collins, and even Cornelia Funke, have used book-two love triangles. Are they necessary? No. Are they particularly well done? Not on average, no. And yet they happen. All I can ask is that you keep in mind what kind of monsters love triangles really are, and how to use them correctly. If it’s going to take away from the awesomeness of your book, it doesn’t matter how much romantic tension it affords— don’t use it. There are other, better ways to create obstacles.
A romance is never just a romance. It starts out as a simple attraction, but in order to keep it from escalating too quickly, obstacles must be thrown into the mix. Usually it turns out to be a love triangle. In main-plot romances, more than one obstacle must be thrown in (mimicking the multiple mystery style of making things complicated). In subplot romances, perhaps a single obstacle is enough, but it’s best if that obstacle arises from the plot— the more unavoidable the obstacle, the better the romantic tension. And as with all promises, make sure to resolve the romance in some way by the end of the book. Otherwise, no matter how much you try, the romance will feel drawn out and boring.
But don’t let all this stop you! Go write a romance sometime. (I know I need to— I haven’t written a successful one yet.) All I ask is that you be aware of the system and the pitfalls behind creating romance. Other than that, have fun. Romance is a useful tool that transcends all genre boundaries, but it’s ultimately just fun. Do it right and do it awesomely.
Do you know a better love triangle? Which is your favorite tension-creating obstacle, and in what book? I hit a lot of books and techniques, but I know I didn’t hit them all. Which are your favorites?