Welcome to part three of this ongoing series addressing how to write popular fiction (successfully). To catch up, start with Part 1 and Part 2, or continue straight into Part 3 of Writing Popular Fiction if you like to live dangerously.
Writing Popular Fiction Part 3:
The Fallacy of the Love Triangle. Let me start with this: how many teen romances, chick flicks, and garden-variety romances have you read or seen that utilize the love triangle? Probably more than you can count. While I can understand the practice in circumstances like a movie in which there is limited time to tell a story, doing so in a novel willy-nilly is flat out lazy. Hear me out. Why have some soap operas been on the air for 40+ years? I would argue it’s not their use of cutting-edge writing teams, but rather their ability to play at the emotions of their viewers. I would argue that if you have time to create a love triangle, you have time to make a love quadrangle. Why is this better? It allows the story to take on a new dynamic. Now there are the interconnections between four characters which can up the ante when it comes to urgency.
A love quadrangle need not be as complicated as it sounds. Circumstances could prevent two characters from being together, and that means those feelings may prevent them from jumping into the sack with yet another character. The reader might have a preference for who a main character ends up with, (Team Jacob), but the reader shouldn’t always get exactly what they want (Any page from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones). The love triangle has been used over and over because it happens in real life. All. The. Time. What’s more confusing for your character, though? Choosing between two men, or choosing between two men who are also being courted by another female. If she chooses wrong she may lose the chance to be with the one she chose, and then how likely is the other guy to be okay with being the leftovers? In my opinion, there’s a lot more places to go with this dynamic, even if the fourth character isn’t a character at all, but a situation that adds to the dilemma.
The Red Herring. This technique used to be a lot more common, but I think it has fallen out of favor by an abundance of audiences that wants everything handed to them on a silver platter. The concept of the Red Herring is that a clue, character, or some other plot device is introduced to throw off the reader and ends up having no effect on the conclusion of the novel. Why would you want to use this technique? The classic case is the Scooby Doo mystery, in which midway through the story a character is introduced and all signs point to them as the perpetrator of some crime, only to have those signs be misleading. (Obviously it was the caretaker of the lighthouse the whole time!) While this isn’t used as heavily in novels these days, it is used in TV Shows. If you don’t believe me, watch any police procedural on TV today. If they “catch the killer” and there’s still fifteen minutes left in the show, they are a Red Herring. Every. Damn. Time.
Here’s the context in which I think this should come back. Most popular fiction these days is too predictable. Nothing can ever happen to the good guys that will cause them lasting harm and who the bad guys are is generally pretty clear from the outset. (In the case of Twilight, *SPOILER* there really are no bad guys of importance, only a situation that is easily fixed if Edward wasn’t such a wimp. There, I said it). Instead, I like to introduce characters and give them backstories even if they don’t end up playing a major part in the plot. If everyone is described well, everyone could be important. It makes the reader pay attention more. In my upcoming book Nightstalkers I introduce several new characters. Some of them will never be seen again, and some others will go on to play major roles in the lives of my characters and in the overarching story of my series. Why? In real life, if you go through your day you meet all kinds of people. At the time, you never know who’s going to end up being important. You could meet your future spouse in passing, but you’re just as likely to meet someone at the grocery store who ends up cutting your hair years later (though you’d never know it). By introducing these characters I not only get to introduce important characters under less than important circumstances, I can introduce small plot devices in the beginning of a story that don’t resurface until much later, even if they are just to confuse my characters, or you, my loyal readers.
My advice: take a chance, use a Red Herring for something other than a perp walk or Scooby Doo-esque mystery. While you’re at it, create a web of love that’s hard to untangle. You never know what side stories might come to you as a result. This is the kind of stuff that makes a series successful. Readers will come back time after time to see what happens to your characters if you give them a reason to care. It’s more interesting to write and it’s more interesting to read. I call that a win-win.