Not long ago, my thirteen-year-old daughter went to a slumber party where they spent the entire night streaming The Summer I Turned Pretty. When she got home, she immediately used the last of a birthday Amazon gift card to order the first novel. Since then (because I’ll always encourage reading) I’ve bought her the other two novels. She’s also been re-watching the series, telling me I should watch with her. She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I’m into it.
Both the books and the show are incredibly popular. Since I strive to learn from other people’s success, I’ve been examining why. Sure, there’s the beautiful cast, beautiful setting, and all the angst.
But my theory is this: In The Summer I Turned Pretty, Jenny Han has created the perfect love triangle.
A love triangle is one of the most captivating elements of romantic fiction, and when crafted with care, it will add a depth of emotion, intensity, and tension to the story that keeps readers turning pages late into the night. But not all love triangles are created equal. Jenny Han used five elements that makes her love triangle a cut above the rest. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the novels, and am only halfway through season two of the series.)
1. The Rivals Should be Equally Desirable
The most important element of a good love triangle is that both rivals should be equally attractive and desirable to the heroine. Otherwise, readers won’t understand why the heroine is struggling to make her decision. This could be physical traits, such as a strong physique, or moral traits, such as loyalty or honor. They should also both possess qualities that the heroine desperately desires, such as security or adventure. For example, Conrad and Jeremiah represent contrasting things to Belly. Jeremiah is the safe option; he is kind, warm, and willing to accept Belly no matter what. Conrad, on the other hand, is the exciting option; he can be aloof and hard to read, but he makes Belly feel alive and seen for who she really is.
2. The Rivals Should be Closely Connected
In addition to both rivals being equally desirable, they should also be closely connected, as this creates an extra level of tension and drama. They could be brothers, best friends, or even rivals of a different sort. This type of connection adds a deeper level of emotion, and both the heroine and the readers will feel torn. Jeremiah and Conrad are obviously brothers, and they need each other after (spoiler alert) their mother Susanah dies. But they often don’t see eye to eye. This push/pull relationship makes the situation with Belly even more heart-wrenching.
3. The Stakes Should Be High
Both guys should be passionate about the heroine. They each must stand to lose a lot were they to lose her. No lukewarm feelings here. Jeremiah needs Belly because she’s his best friend who he’s recently developed romantic feelings for. Conrad’s always had a connection with Belly, but was afraid to go there, until the temptation was just too high. And even though (spoiler alert) Conrad pushes Belly away, he still needs her. Both guys will feel lost and devastated if Belly doesn’t choose them.
4. The Rivalry Should be Complicated
In order for a love triangle to be effective, the rivalry should also be complicated, like with opposing loyalties, secrets, or even forbidden love. This adds an extra layer of complexity to the story, as readers will have to consider the implications of the heroine’s choice. With Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah, family dynamics complicate their love triangle. Belly’s older brother Stephen is affected by how things will play out, since he’s best friends with both Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly’s close relationship to Susannah (she was like a second mother to Belly and always said she wanted Belly to end up with one of her boys–but which one?) adds another layer, especially once Susannah dies. And when Conrad and Jeremiah might lose the beach house, they, along with Belly, feel like they could lose both their last connection to Susanah and their connection to each other.
5. The Heroine Should be Torn
Last but certainly not least, the heroine should be torn between the two rivals. This is essential for a good love triangle, as it creates a sense of tension and suspense as readers wait to see who the heroine will choose. There’s a lot of debate about whom Belly will end up with, with readers/viewers pledging their allegiance to either Team Conrad or to Team Jer. It’s no fun if we can predict the winner. (I realize that the third book has been out there for a while, and I assume it’s clear at the end who, if either of them, Belly ends up with.) Jenny Hann creates suspense when Belly’s affections waffle back and forth between Conrad and Jeremiah, and that’s a major reason why fans keep coming back for more.
I’ve been brainstorming other love triangles to introduce my daughter to, once we’re done with The Summer I Turned Pretty. She’s already started The Hunger Games, and I’m thinking I’ll go 90s nostalgia and turn on Dawson’s Creek. If you have other suggestions, please let me know!