Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Means War: The Love Triangle Done Right

My husband and I went on a date this weekend, and we saw This Means War a romantic comedy instead of a shoot ‘em up action films we normally see.

I can probably count on one hand the number of romantic comedies that I’ve really really liked. Don’t get me wrong, I love romance, but in most romantic comedies either the romance feels off or the humor isn’t quite my taste, but whatever it is, most of them don’t work for me. This one did. More amazingly it worked for my hubby too. That is because this story is part action flick, part spy vs. spy, part romance, part bromance, and all comedy.

The premise of this story is two CIA agents (played by Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who are best friends fall for the same girl (Reese Witherspoon). They decide to both date her until she chooses one of them.

So this has the classic love triangle, a commonly used device in romances found in everything from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Sometimes the love triangle is awesome, and sometimes it falls flat. Honestly, I thought it was very well done in This Means War, definitely one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Here are the five reasons that made this love triangle work so well.

1. It really was a love triangle. A lot of times the love triangle isn’t really a love triangle, but what I call a love Lambda. In case you don’t know or don’t remember, Lambda is a letter in the Greek alphabet that in its capital form looks like this Λ. Notice that it looks like a triangle, but isn’t quite a triangle. You are missing the connection between the two love interests (see figure below).

The love triangle in Hunger Games is really a love Lambda. Peeta and Gale are not friends or brothers or have any relationship at all, so there shouldn’t be a line between them, same for the love triangle in the Twilight series. But in This Means War, the two guys are best friends and partners. They really love each other (in a platonic way), so there is another relationship at stake. Their friendship could be destroyed by competing for the same girl. It adds another level of tension to the story, and tension is always good.

Now don’t get me wrong, a love lambda can be done very well, and I thoroughly enjoy a good one, but I always prefer some sort of relationship between the two love interests. I like to see the dynamics between the two love interests, and I like the higher stakes.

2. Both love interests were likeable. Both FDR and Tuck were great, cute, funny, and all around awesome guys. You really want both of them to get the girl.

Sometimes in love triangles you get one guy who is clearly better than the other, and it becomes obvious who the winner should be, sometimes to the point where you think the MC is an idiot for not being able to choose.

Although sometimes it is less of love triangle and more of an antagonist trying to break the two apart like in Titanic (Jack, Rose, and Cal). And it is always fun when the one who seems the better choice ends up as the true antagonist like in Pride and Prejudice (Darcy, Elizabeth, Wickham).

But in a true love triangle, both love interests need to at least at first come across as appealing or the MC looks a little dim witted, or worse, a jerk for leading one of them on when she clearly prefers the other.

3. The one in the middle was likeable. Lauren was cute, funny, charming as Reese Witherspoon always does so well. She never came off as jerking the guys around. She seemed sincerely interested in both of them, and really struggled to make her choice. She also gave herself a time limit, so she wouldn’t be jerking them around indefinitely.

Sometimes the one in the middle can look a little like a jerk. Leading one love interest on when it is clear to everyone who she/he really wants to be with (cough, cough, Bella). This was not the case in This Means War. She truly came off as someone struggling with the decision and feeling like a horrible person because she couldn’t make up her mind.

It did help to that the two guys weren’t exactly innocent. They kept the fact that they were friends from her and pretty much trashed her constitutional rights. But it was all in good fun (comedies can get away with these things), nothing too creepy, but I’m sure some would see this as romanticizing the stalker once again. :)

4. One love interest seemed more perfect for the one in the middle. No matter how awesome the two love interests are, in the end someone has to win. Well not always; they could share like in the movie Bandits.

But most of the time, audiences want a monogamous relationship at the end, so one of the love interests needs to come off on top. In This Means War, one of the guys definitely seemed to connect better with the girl.

In the end, it is a romance, and the right guy needs to end up with the right girl or it isn’t satisfying. I thought it ended perfectly even if I saw it coming almost from the beginning.

5. The love triangle was integral to the plot. It pretty much was the plot. I don’t think the love triangle always has to be the main part of the story, but it should serve some purpose to the overall plot. A lot of times a love triangle feels thrown in to add more conflict. Love triangles are a bit overdone and don’t work in all stories, and there are other ways to add conflict between two love birds that might work better. So unless the love triangle plays a vital role in the story, it might be better to find some other conflict to keep two characters apart. There are plenty of them. :)

Not all Love triangles have to meet all of these criteria, but I think these are good points to keep in mind when writing one. I always enjoy a good love triangle when they are done right. Just one more thing I can never get enough of.



  1. MaryAnn, you have a real knack for putting story issues into terms nerds can appreciate. I LOVE the love lambda. I agree, there is something more interesting about a true triangle.

    I will definitely put This Means War on my movies-to-see-if-we-ever-manage-to-get-a-babysitter list :)

  2. I love this post! Mary Ann, I had never considered this idea of the Love Lambda. It is Genius. I doubt I'll see the movie, cause I don't think my wife will go for it, but the concept you teach here I'll definitely use in the future thanks!

  3. As man who does and thinks about manly things, I haven't much considered love triangles past the point of "those are for girlies."

    But you've opened my eyes. What I actually hate are love lambdas.

    I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that secretly, everybody hates them.

  4. @Sarah, that is because I'm such a nerd. It is nice to have my nerdiness be appreciated. :)

    @Jayrod, I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Carl, I think it is because the love lambda puts all the emphasis on the one in the middle who for some reason is usually a girl. I'm not sure why. But I think that is why it feels like a girly wish fulfillment.

    But in a true love triangle all of the players get equal emphasis which I think is so much better.

    Although I don't secretly hate all love lambdas. Sometimes they work. I liked it in Hunger Games, but I definitetly see your point. :)

  5. Love lambda = EXTRA WIN, mostly because it's so very, very true.

  6. Arg! I can't tell you how many times I've sat down to write a comment on this post, only to be interrupted by my children who have the week off from school. Even now, my oldest son is sitting next to me saying "Parlez--parsley, parsnip..." I think that means he thinks he has something more important to talk about than this comment. It makes it very hard to concentrate, but suffice it to say that I'm sure I've got a brilliant comment floating around in my head somewhere.

    I love happy endings, and love triangles make completely happy endings difficult to come by. A love lambda is like an exquisite form of torture, but I think it's a genius distinction. Great post!

  7. Love lambda is brilliant. I read the whole post to my husband. (and I want to take him to that movie now - spies plus a love triangle plus Captain Kirk - what could be better!)

  8. Great post!! I've never thought about Love Lambada!! My sister told me about this movie and she said it was freaking awesome! I still need to see it ;) :) Anyway, great explanation! I had fun reading it :)

    1. Thanks Nea!! I'm always worry a little when I give such rave reviews for a movie or book that it might not live up to others' expectations, but I really enjoyed it. Hope you do to. :)


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