Romantic Tension and Why Love Triangles Hurt

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?



79 thoughts on “Romantic Tension and Why Love Triangles Hurt

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a love triangle I’ve enjoyed. Well, perhaps Jack Sparrow/Elizabeth/Will Turner but I don’t think that counts because Jack is just a flirt, he never loved Elizabeth. And I haven’t read Kane chronicles so I can’t speak for it.

    But I loved this post. It gives me a lot to chew on since the last book in my trilogy will *sort of* have a love triangle. Sort of. Not really. Not in the true sense. But I still don’t want to mess it up.

    1. Yes, that one was fun, because Elizabeth was manipulating even more than Jack was.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I wasn’t sure if it would be too dry, so I stuck a lot of gifs in.

  2. My gracious, where do I even start?
    How about with “This was a great post and one I can put to use in my current WIP”? I like it when I’m inspired to apply concepts that don’t involve me chasing a separate plot bunny. *nods*
    I am going to argue two points you made, though. One, you have been successful writing romance (at least in my opinion), even though you are notorious for killing one half of the couple before the end of the book. Two, Well of Ascension did actually have a sort of love triangle. Zane. Yes, Vin may not have ever actually loved him, but she did wonder if she should be with him instead of Elend, and Zane liked her.
    My favorite form of romantic tension to write is the one where the pair starts out not liking each other. I’ve unfortunately made it my default (not necessarily a bad thing, but not every romance plot I write can be like that). But I am happy to say that I have never written… no wait, I have written a love triangle. But it was years ago.
    As for good love triangles in literature… Les Miserables. LOTR. Even Pride and Prejudice had a love triangle. The Count of Monte Cristo.
    One of the bad thing about love triangles is that there are two boys for the girl or vice versa. And it just doesn’t work like that. A good many girls are lucky to have one boy liking her.
    All right, I’m done. Excellent post.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was more helpful than my one-sentence rundown earlier.

      That’s true. Zane was present, but I didn’t feel like it was much of a romance on that side.

      1. The one-sentence rundown was helpful, too. But this went deeper.

        I think the romance was on Zane’s part, not Vin’s. He liked her, but she didn’t like him in the same way.

    2. I’d like to note that The Count of Monte Cristo is reaaally a love triangle. He ends up with Haydee. And in the beginning there were no tension between Mercedes and Edmond’s love. They were going to marry and their love was strong. TCoMC’s love relationships are more ‘tragedy’ like. At least to me…

      1. …I haven’t yet finished The Count of Monte Cristo, so I can’t really comment. I just knew of the Mercedes, Fernando, and Edmond triangle.

      2. It’s fine. You couldn’t spoil it unless you… I’m not sure what you would have to do, actually. I think telling me every detail would kill it for me.

  3. Oooh, this I can use for reference later on…you should make a book of all writing things you’ve posted. I’m sure there would be a lot. It would be like, writer’s party! Let’s all go buy Liam’s book!
    Great post, though! I love the Rick Riordan references…:)

  4. Great post, especially the explanation of why love-triangles don’t usually work. I knew I didn’t like them (usually), but I now I sort of see why this is.

    Probably my favourite book with a love triangle in it is Wuthering Heights, but I didn’t necessarily like the love triangle itself. Wuthering Heights is really strange, because I didn’t really like any of the characters, and I didn’t like the story-line that much, and yet I did really like the book. I don’t know why. I even upgraded it from a 4-star book to a 5-star book on Goodreads. And yet… I’m not sure what I like about it.

    Except for a couple of somewhat romanc-y short stories, I’ve mainly steered clear of romance in my fiction. Perhaps its time I tried a romantic subplot, even if just a minor subplot… but no love triangles!

    (Oh, and what is happening? Your lovely monochrome blog is getting invaded by gifs…)

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I haven’t read Wuthering Heights yet, I’m afraid. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Required reading catches up to us all.

      Excellent. I hope it works.

      (I knew someone would say something. I feel like a 1k block of words in a blog post can get boring— even for me— so I wanted to break it up a little. Your opinion: does it work?)

      1. It’s an interesting book, one of the most strange and original I’ve read. Worth reading, in my opinion, even if you hate all the characters.

        (I think it does work, but I prefer not to have them in every post. Every now and again is good. I very rarely get bored by anything you write.)

      2. (For what it’s worth, I rarely get bored either. I don’t care either way about the pictures. The only time I tend to get bored is if it’s a review of some book I’ll likely never read or a major, most-of-the-post reference to some book I’ve never read but might actually read. But that’s just me.)

  5. Excellent post!
    Definitely bookmarking this one 🙂

    A fantastic example of a love triange that works is the Jane/Rochester/St John triangle from Jane Eyre. It’s not just a question of “Whom do I like better?” but a moral struggle as well.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you stopped by.

      Alas, I have not yet read Jane Eyre. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, as I told Leinad above. It will probably be required in my near future.

    2. I forgot about the Jane Eyre love triangle. That certainly was one that worked. I think I liked Wuthering Heights slightly better as a book (perhaps only because it was more strange), but Jane Eyre was a love triangle that made you like the MC rather than dislike her.

  6. I tried to keep a straight face throughout this whole thing, but I failed. Unfortunately. It just…I don’t know, something made me laugh. Although I had to take a brief detour when I saw the Ally Carter book I search GoodReads to find out when and how and where I missed you’d read it. (Yay! You read it! You had no regrets! This is wondrous news!)

    I agree, I agree, and I agree. Good point about why we don’t like love triangles. Never thought about that. I try to avoid them. Have never written them. Ever. Barely even a subplot.

    1. Excellent. I’m glad there was some humor involved. (I think the gifs helped.) Otherwise it would be a pretty dry post.

      Yes, I wondered why you hadn’t seen that. To be fair, I did mark a lot of books to-read just after that, based on the recommendations.


      1. Oh, right. Perhaps GoodReads decided not to show the review, then. Huh. I should think reviews take priority over to reads…

      2. THANK YOU! (Warning, you’re in danger of me ignoring the spontaneous-combustion protection device thingy you have and entering the bubble of space just to show my appreciation for an answer other than “Indeed.”)

      3. …And for that, I think I’ll just…I don’t know…throw a duck at your head? Yeah, my grouchy duck. Whose name I can’t seem to remember. Huh. Well, all the same. *carries out the threat*

      4. You don’t object to being referred to as “cadet”? (Especially because I don’t even remember what branch of military or something that’s from?)

      5. I’m not sure of specifics, but I don’t think it’s an actual military rank. It’s just a term for people in training for a specialized job.

      6. It’s not a problem for me (which you cannot refute, because you don’t know what is or isn’t a problem for me), therefore I can say “No problem” with impunity. Find someone else to argue semantics with.

      7. (Wait…if I shook your hand at the end of our argument, why didn’t I explode? Well…we’ve had a discussion of this sort before, haven’t we? Sorry, I forgot.)

      8. No wait hold on, that’d still kill me. Let’s modify that statement. It only harms you. There.

        And why am I trying to harm you, again…?

  7. The only reason I back away (fast) from love-triangles is because I’ve read too many. That’s the only reason. I have read some seriously EPIC love-triangles that I think were perfectly executed. (Mostly I’m thinking of Throne of Glass right now. xD) I did enjoy the one in the Splintered trilogy too, but I have a feeling my ship is going to sink. Dangit. Anyway. I do get why authors use love-triangles a lot, but sometimes I wonder if it’s the easy option? Like the…”Oh we need tension…um…um….LOVE TRIANGLE.” I prefer to read something a little more unique. That’s why I love The Raven Boys. I ship everyone with everyone at some point in the series and it’s highly amusing. (At least for me…hehe.)

    1. Love triangles definitely are an easy option, but nothing else in writing is easy, so why should romantic tension be? Okay, that’s not a very good argument. I agree about Raven Boys, though. They do some pretty cool stuff with romance there.

  8. I’ve always found book-two love triangles to be even worse than the book-one triangles. Mostly because, I can sometimes understand how they’d be a good obstacle to keep characters from getting together, but as for being used as an obstacle to create tension after they’re together? It just seems lazy to me. I mean, just because two people became a couple doesn’t mean they’re suddenly not going to have any issues or tension or anything. Especially in books or movies where very little time passes, like only a few days—or even just a few hours—but there’s still a kiss at the end. The two might end up as couple, but do they really know each other? Not really. So after all that, they’re going to find traits in one another that they don’t like so much, or there will just be flaws, and they can create tension.

    Most of the time, when I see authors actually putting tension between the two character like that, including arguments and things, they often end up breaking up by the end of the book. Which just annoys me.

    1. Exactly. When the romance is already established, to throw another person into the mix is silly.

      Indeed. But that’s the hard thing about it— you want to make sure the characters end up together, so you can’t introduce anything that’s a real, insurmountable problem.

  9. Excellent post. I think the non-love triangle triangle in Well of Ascension is my favorite one, but the one in Serpent’s Shadow was good too.

    The problem I have with love triangles is I always pick one of the two suitors I like and want the MC to end up with, so the other one becomes annoying. (I cite Twilight as an example.) This is why the Samm/Kira thing in Partials annoyed me. I don’t care what Wells said other readers said about Marcus, I always liked him better. Now, obviosuly there were… Issues with that relationship, but I always preferred Marcus.

    1. Indeed. It’s especially difficult when the author just has the main character flip a coin and choose based on that, instead of making one seem definitely worse than the other (for instance, Mr. Wickham in P&P).

      1. That’s one style of love triangle, yes, but not the only one. It’s one way to think about it, but you get into trouble if you try to constantly live by only that.

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