Writing the triangle story: bending Dramatica to the writer’s will

I seem to be attracted to writing triangles. My work-in-progress, Pride’s Children, is an adult love triangle. A play I wrote, Tangled Webs, is another triangle story, this time about a young woman who finds out she’s adopted – and is the bone of contention between her two mothers.

I am fascinated by triangle stories: Agnes of God, by John Pielmeier, tells the story of a young nun who has an unexpected child – and the fight over her soul between the Mother Superior of her convent and the court-ordered psychiatrist who must try to figure out how the baby ended up dead. Eleemosynary, a play by Lee Blessing, tells the story of three generations of women in a family.

A proper triangle has two-person interactions between each pairing. The interest comes from the rotating interaction between three characters – if a story is merely that a guy is interested in two different women, and picks one over the other, it isn’t what I call a proper triangle: the women MUST interact separately of their interaction with the man, for it to pique my interest.

So what makes a proper triangle story?

1. Three fascinating characters.

If Agnes of God were about Agnes, the Mother Superior, and the baby, it would not hold the same degree of attention – because the baby is not a fascinating character.

2. Separate strong relationships between each pair of characters.

The reason Eleemosynary works is that there are two mother-daughter relationships – and the balancing grandmother/granddaughter relationship brought about because the woman in the middle is too busy and too insecure to raise her own daughter, and pawns the job off on her own mother.

The relationship that develops in Agnes between the Mother Superior and the psychiatrist, a lapsed Catholic, provides a powerful statement.

3. A crucible, sometimes a hidden pivot point at the triangle’s center.

The hidden adoption in Tangled Webs, and the relationships between the three women and the man in the invisible center of the story, keep pulling these women back into the center of a common goal.

In Agnes of God, that center is a dead baby. And Catholicism.

Sometimes the pivot is the notion of right and wrong: whose version is the right one?

4. Winners and losers.

Any good story has these, but the crucible makes it impossible for all the goals to be attained, at least as the characters goals are defined going in to the story.

5. And an ending that matters.

The world will be different depending on who ‘wins.’ And this can often be the destruction of the triangle – though the consequences will linger on.

Or it could be a compromise that leads to a functional triangle, instead of a dysfunctional one.

Using Dramatica to plot the triangle story.

I have found my way to plot triangles by using the Dramatica core idea of two intersecting stories, a personal relationship story (the SS or Subjective Story in the original terminology) and a public story (the OS or Overall Story).

The key to my method is to use the Main Character/Impact (or Obstacle) Character relationship pair in the SS, and the Protagonist/Antagonist pair in the OS as two sides of my triangle – by making one member of each the SAME person, and thus creating a HINGE.

Choosing the hinge character defines the story, because this character has a double role. In my adoption play, it has to be the adoptee. In Agnes of God, I would have chosen Agnes.

The third side of the triangle seems to happen naturally: knowing that I’m writing a triangle story strengthens and emphasizes the connections between the non-hinge characters in the dyads, giving an extra dimension to that interaction.

Isn’t this a distortion of Dramatica? Yes and no. In the plotting part – creating a single storyform – I skimp on nothing: everything Dramatica pulls out of me goes in there somewhere. The story is not hobbled by an unbalanced ‘extra’ relationship with more pieces in it to give it more weight.

But when it comes to writing, I use the existing connections between the two characters in the relationship story and the third character (who is only in the overall story) to lock in the third side of the triangle: the third character’s connection to each of the relationship story characters.

How does this work in practice? In Pride’s Children, Kary is the Main Character, Andrew the Obstacle Character, in the relationship story (SS). But Andrew is the Protagonist in the Overall Story, and Bianca is the OS Antagonist.*

Here’s where I probably deviate from Dramatica canon: I let the third character carry a bit more of the general weight of the Overall Story.

So that when I look at something like OS Catalyst – the appreciation which ‘describes what will move the story more quickly forward at points when it has slowed down’ – I let Bianca carry it if possible: I encoded** this appreciation as:

‘In Book I Andrew’s delays about accepting the Dodgson script lead to Bianca letting Kary work on it’

Bianca’s acquiescence to this plan is key to moving the story forward.

This is allowed: how I write what I have encoded – called storyweaving (how I ‘expose the appreciation’*** to the reader) – is up to me. Each choice I make in encoding and exposing appreciations makes a different story: I choose to further the triangle at many of these junctures.

I already weight the writing to further my own biases when I choose this story and these characters. Every writer does this. What is different about my triangles is that I have found a way to do it within the structure that makes my plotting feel more anchored – without completely demolishing that structure.

I like the way it works. In BOTH the stories I have written this way, the story’s ending comes from the third leg of the triangle – and it feels right.

*loosely speaking, because all my characters are Complex, and don’t exactly fit the 8 basic stereotypes. I call ‘Protagonist’ the character who has more of the Protagonist’s appreciations than any other character – and whom I would have made the stereotypical Protagonist if I had been forced to choose.

**encoding means to choose how I will fill in this particular Dramatica question box with MY ideas

***how I actually write an appreciation, what words I choose in thought, dialogue, or action to express this concept

Copyright 2013 by Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt


2 thoughts on “Writing the triangle story: bending Dramatica to the writer’s will

  1. Rachel6

    I’ve got to stop reading your posts on figuring out writing…I got just enough of a spoiler to pique my curiosity to boiling-point.


    1. ABE Post author

      So sorry! I will try to use examples in the future from stuff I’ve already posted – and a link. Or put ‘Spoiler alert’ out.

      OTOH, piquing curiosity is a GOOD thing.



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