The classic triangle plot is the love triangle and as far as it goes, it may also be described as an adversary or a rivalry (or an underdog) plot. The reason I mention triangles (and trios) separately is because they tend to get complicated. They don’t often lend themselves to simple, cardboard characters or storylines because of the complexity of relationships involved.
As mentioned in the last post, a writer needs to be clear that it is actually a triangle. If two people are trying to win the hand of a third and that third person is portrayed as little more than the object of their desire, it is in fact a basic rivalry plot. If that third person, however, has a genuine pick–one or the other or perhaps neither choice–and is a fully developed character, it is a triangle.
Not being a romance fanatic excludes me from serious examples of love triangles, many of which I am sure exist. What I can give, though, is examples of triangles motivated by something other than love, and yes, there are such things.
A classic example of a triangle plot can be found in the title: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here, three men are after the same thing: confederate gold (a rivalry). They each wind their way toward the goal, crossing each other’s paths several times until the final showdown at the end. Those so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” were very good at inventing triangles.
A similar plot, the trio might be seen, for example, in the film Ghost. When the young man is killed and can no longer communicate with his love, a third person must enter the fray: the medium or psychic. She is the only means by which any action (dialogue) can take place, and she almost gets killed along with the girl in the end. While not the best story of character development, it remains one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Triangles and trios are not easy to write because, as mentioned, the relationships can get complicated. Also, as in Ghost, the competitive nature of the trio plot is not always simple and obvious. In Ghost, it is three as a team against an outside force. In the book, Rebecca, it is a man, his new wife and a housekeeper also against an outside force: the first wife’s memory.
When the conflict (against) is within the triangle, like an episode of the bachelor, the one you are rooting for must suffer a setback early on. As in any competitive plot, there is a comeback before the final confrontation, or as the case may be, the final decision. Shrek is a fair example. While Shrek and the Prince (with his mother) fight over the girl, Fiona has a mind of her own, and if you watch the films you find she makes her own decision in the end.
When the conflict is external to the trio, something must threaten to break the trio apart—and at least partly succeed in the beginning. When the young man dies at the beginning of Ghost, that is pretty dramatic and seemingly final, but in fact it causes the formation of the trio which make the expected “come back” and go on to overcome the killer. The breaking of the trio might also initially involve the separation of the two who might otherwise gang up against the third. In the film, Trading Places, the commodities trader and the street con man are switched, but not separated far enough. They eventually figure it out and do indeed successfully gang up on “the brothers” in the end.
Trios and triangles can be strong stories, difficult as they may be to write. The author, though, needs to be clear that the story qualifies. If a couple are up against an antagonist and essentially acting as one, it is likely just an adversary plot. If they are striving for something against another person or even another couple, it is a plain rivalry. Only if there are three separate characters, however two may come together in the end, as in a love story or as in the example of Trading Places, does it qualify as a trio/triangle plot.
If the story is a true triangle/trio plot, it is important that the writer be aware of it and maintain the variety of relationships and the full-fledged characters throughout. To let such a story devolve into a simple protagonist/antagonist story risks disappointing and losing the readers. There is nothing wrong with two of the characters falling in love half-way through the story as long as one does not become a mere appendage of the other or get lost in the shuffle for the remainder of the tale.