A beginner’s guide to romantic geometry.
Ah, the love triangle. One of storytelling’s most beloved (and, depending on who you ask, overused) tropes. Narratively, it’s older than dirt and has more or less infinite themes and variations. But at its simplest, it boils down to a situation in which Person A has reached a romantic fork in the road where one path leads to Person B and the other, Person C. Whatever shall they do?
While there might be endless possibilities for the love triangle and its discontents, the universe, being the way it is, tends to repeat its favorites quite often. The following are twelve of the most frequent solutions to this exceedingly common problem.
1. Follow Your Heart
While a love triangle presents what is technically a choice between two people, Person A’s ultimate decision is usually not so much about a choice between two individuals as a choice between contrasting ideas or themes. To put it another way, you’re not going to see a love triangle where the protagonist has to choose between two kind but slightly dull accountants. Of the various dichotomies that Persons B and C can represent, the most common are those that boil down to a good old-fashioned head vs. heart conflict: one candidate is more intriguing but represents greater risk, while the other option is deemed safer (at least in certain regards—e.g. financial security). In this most Hollywood of scenarios, Person A decides the risk is worth the potential reward and follows their heart. Tends to lead to either happily-ever-after or a lot of dead people, with very little in-between.
Examples: Titanic (Jack/Rose/Cal); The Princess Bride (Westley/Buttercup/Humperdink); The Notebook (Noah/Allie/Lon)
2. Follow Your Head
The same situation as above, only Person A decides to follow their head instead. Especially common in particularly somber dramas and period pieces. Where “Follow Your Heart” tends to end with riding off into the sunset or a lot of dead people, picking “Follow Your Head” usually leads to a resolution somewhere in the middle, where the parties involved live to see another day but are often some degree of miserable.
Example: The Age of Innocence (May/Newland/Ellen)
3. Intentional Disqualification
Person C comes to the realization that Persons A and B are simply Meant to Be™—or someone else has caught their eye, or perhaps they’re just tired and don’t live by the “winners never quit” philosophy. Regardless of the reason why, the bottom line is that Person C decides to cut their losses and disqualify themselves from the running.
Examples: The Corpse Bride (Victoria/Victor/Emily); Casablanca (Laszlo/Ilsa/Rick)
4. Accidental Disqualification
Person A’s selection between B and C becomes a whole lot easier when C turns out to be a terrible person. Especially common in teen films or films geared towards younger audiences, where Person C is a popular heartthrob or bad boy type and B is a somewhat awkward but ultimately lovable dork.
Examples: 10 Things I Hate About You (Cameron/Bianca/Joey); Frozen (Hans/Anna/Kristoff)
5. Nobody Wins
Persons B and C are both pursuing Person A, but for one reason or another, by the time the story comes to an end, Person A is definitively not with any of their suitors. Sometimes it’s because A ultimately decides they would rather choose “none of the above,” sometimes it’s because B and C decide they can’t handle the suspense and lose interest before A gets around to making up their mind, sometimes life just happens and things don’t work out. But regardless, by the time the tale comes to an end, Persons A, B, and C have all gone their separate ways.
Examples: Pocahontas (Kocuom/Pocahontas/John); Gone With The Wind (Ashley/Scarlett/Rhett)
6. The Stalemate
The resolution of no resolution. Unlike in “Nobody Wins,” where Person A has definitively rejected (or in some cases been rejected by) their suitors, the Stalemate occurs when the love entanglement remains entangled by the end of the story.
Example: The Graduate (Ben/Elaine/Carl)
7. Everybody Wins
Persons B and C both want Person A. But instead of resolving the situation with winners and losers, these three consenting adults decide to enter a ménage à trois. And then everybody’s happy, right? (Usually, not exactly…)
Example: Y Tu Mamá También (Julio/Luisa/Tenoch)
8. Kill the Hypotenuse
I addressed this one before in “25 Signs Your Character is About to Die,” and while the context may be different, the situation remains the same. The fates (read: the writers) have decided that Person A and Person B are Meant to Be, and that Person C is very much in the way. And as, in this scenario, Person C has no intention of stepping aside and going the “Intentional Disqualification” route, the solution becomes clear: C has to die. Whether it be in combat or by flu pandemic, C is removed from the picture, leaving A and B free to get together (relatively) guilt-free.
Examples: Pearl Harbor (Rafe/Evelyn/Danny); Downton Abbey (Mary/Matthew/Lavinia); Once Upon a Time (Hook/Emma/Neal); Les Misérables (Eponine/Marius/Cosette)
9. Everybody Dies
While few stories are morbid enough to kill everyone in a love triangle, “Everybody Dies” refers to any situation in which death resolves a love triangle in a way that isn’t killing the hypotenuse. The most downer of endings.
Example: Jules and Jim (Jules/Catherine/Jim)
10. Erase the Middle Man
Somewhere along the way in pursuing Person A, Persons B and C realize that who they really want is each other. It’s a hell of a plot twist.
Examples: The Legend of Korra (Korra/Mako/Asami); Plan B (Bruno/Laura/Pablo)
11. The Triangle is an Illusion
A love triangle that doesn’t actually exist outside of a character’s head. This particular scenario has two main sub-categories. The first is a love “triangle” in which Person C, contrary to what Person B believes, is not actually a rival for Person A’s affection. The second major category of illusionary triangle is that in which Person A struggles with their dueling feelings for Persons B and C, only to realize that B and C are actually one and the same. There are also plenty of other less common subtypes of this trope (see: The Prestige).
Examples: Star Wars (Han/Leia/Luke, thankfully; Sleeping Beauty (Phillip/Aurora); Aladdin (Aladdin/Jasmine); You’ve Got Mail (Joe/Kathleen)
12. Buyer’s Remorse
Person A chooses Person B. But instead of riding off into the sunset together, Person A starts remembering all the reasons why Person C was pretty damn great.
A narrative curveball where the supposed resolution of relationship angst is instead a launchpad for relationship angst dialed up to 11. Can often dovetail with “Follow Your Head.”
Examples: Poldark (Demelza/Ross/Elizabeth); The Age of Innocence (May/Newland/Ellen)