Triangular relationships create tension


In stories, happy couples are boring.

At the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously states, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Don’t you just know he’s going to go on and write a story about an unhappy family? He might just as well have said, ‘happy families don’t make interesting plots.’

It’s the same with couples. In stories, happy couples are boring. They don’t bring tension; there is nowhere for the plot to go. Groups of three are much more interesting: think of Daisy, Tom and Jay in The Great Gatsby. Will Daisy choose to rekindle the past with her romantic ex suitor Jay, even if it means abandoning her safe ‘old money’ background, or will she stay with adulterous Tom in a loveless marriage? It’s the question that haunts the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald makes us wait almost until the end to find out.

Tolstoy uses several groups of three: Dolly, Stiva and Stiva’s mistress; Kitty, Lenin and Vronsky; Anna, Karenin and Vronsky. The fact that the latter two overlap makes for even more tension and interest, and following the course of those triangles forms most of the plot of the novel.

The third element in the group doesn’t even have to be a person: Romeo loves Juliet, Juliet loves Romeo. So where’s the story? Well, the last part of the triangle is their warring families, determined to oppose the match: now you have a plot.

So, if we are stuck how to move our stories on – we could create a group of three. It certainly didn’t do Fitzgerald, Tolstoy or Shakespeare any harm!