When you think about broad names for types of conflict, you might list Person vs. Person, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Society, and so on.
The thing these all have in common: Two opposing forces. A vs. B.
This setup is classic because it works. The objectives and obstacles are clear.
But sometimes adding a third element — someone who disrupts that simple A vs. B statement — can make for a funnier, higher-stakes scene. These characters can be unexpected single-use characters, or characters who already have an established role in the story.
Let’s look at how they work.
Single-Use Characters as Third Wheel
In Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally, there’s a perfect example of the single-use character. Hanging out at the batting cage with Jess, Harry defends his platonic friendship with Sally as part of his increasing maturity. It’s a classic A vs. B conflict with each side trying to persuade the other.
Why can’t you give me credit for this? This is a big thing for me. I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that didn’t involve sex. I feel like I’m growing.
Then a young boy walks up outside the cage and interrupts:
Are you finished?
Hey, I got a whole stack of quarters and I was here first.
The moment makes Jess (and the audience) question how honest Harry’s really being with himself about his emotional journey. If a kid so easily gets under his skin and reduces him to a childish shouting match, has Harry grown up?
In the Season 3 episode of The Good Place titled The Ballad of Donkey Doug, Matt Murray’s script sets up a dilemma for Chidi that creates a perfect opportunity for a Third Wheel to disrupt the scene.
Chidi learns the truth about the structure of the afterlife, and that just by having knowledge of this truth, he’s condemned to an eternity of torture in The Bad Place. To protect his girlfriend Simone from the same fate, he decides the only moral thing to do is break up with her.
But Chidi has no idea how to break up with someone (or how to do it without hurting the other person).
After rehearsing dozens of scenarios with the help of Eleanor and Janet in a virtual reality simulator, Chidi meets with Simone in the same café all the virtual rehearsals took place in. There’s just one catch: Chidi forgot to plan for being interrupted by the café’s staff.
Okay, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about everything that’s happened in the last year —
Hi, there. What can I get you to drink?
Uh, I’ll have an iced tea, please.
The Waitress leaves.
Um, it’s been a time of massive personal and professional growth —
Sorry, sugar with that iced tea?
Um, all in all, it’s been overwhelmingly positive, and I think that’s due in large part to you.
The Waitress returns with HELMUT, another server.
Sorry, real quick, I’m gonna go on break, so Helmut will be taking care of you.
Hello! Will you be eating with us today?
Just please give us one second!
One! That was one second. That was joke!
Please get out of here, Helmut!
All right, look, just, um… we need to break up! I am breaking up with you!
I can’t… It’s complicated, but it’s happening. Ya’ dumped!
The disruption is two-fold, starting with the initial interruptions from the Waitress, but then going even deeper (and sillier) by switching to a completely new server with a more over-the-top, gregarious persona.
With Chidi already on edge going into this scene, this unexpected new element makes it impossible for him to have the conversation with Simone he anticipated.
These single-use characters have their own agendas, and generally aren’t trying to interfere with the protagonist. They’re just doing their jobs.
Recurring Characters as Third Wheel
When using characters the audience is already familiar with, the disruptions caused by a Third Wheel don’t need as much time for set up, and can play into what we’ve already learned about the characters.
In Thor: Ragnarok (screenplay by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost), Thor wants to escape Sakaar in order to save Asgard from his sister Hela, but Valkyrie and Hulk have personal reasons why they want to remain on Sakaar.
Thor tries to convince Valkyrie to remember she’s an Asgardian and join him in the fight against Hela, but Hulk’s presence in the background (bouncing a ball) undermines Thor’s argument.
If Hela’s back, then Asgard is already lost.
I’m going to stop her.
Nope. I’m putting together a team. It’s me, you, and the big guy.
No. No team. Only Hulk!
It’s me, and you.
I think it’s only you.
Hulk’s presence first allows Thor to claim that he’s not trying to recruit Valkyrie on his own, but Hulk’s refusal to be part of the team supports Valkyrie’s desire to avoid entangling herself in Thor’s family drama.
The scene without Hulk would probably have a similar result for Thor, but adding him into the mix creates means that Thor isn’t just failing to convert Valkyrie into an ally, but he’s truly standing alone at that moment.
In Ordinary People, Alvin Sargent’s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel features a first date gone terribly wrong when a group of characters shows up as a Third Wheel.
Conrad is having dinner with Jeannine, having a moment of genuine connection when she asks him questions about his suicide attempt. Suddenly, the moment is broken up when Conrad’s former friends from the swim team burst in, singing and making a scene.
Did it hurt?
I don’t remember really.
You don’t want to talk about it?
I — I don’t know. I’ve never really talked about it. To doctors, but not to anyone else. You’re the first person who’s asked.
Why’d you do it?
Uh… I don’t know. It was like… falling into a hole. It was like falling into a hole and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. And you can’t escape. And then all of a sudden, it’s inside, and you’re the hole. You’re trapped, and it’s all over. Something like that. It’s not really scary. Except it is when you think back on it. ‘Cause you know what you were feeling —
…Like McDonald’s can
Nobody can do it
Like McDonald’s can
You deserve a break today
They interrupt the date, pull Jeannine out of her seat, and crown her with a paper McDonald’s employee hat. She laughs, nervous and confused.
Conrad feels a massive loss here. Right at the moment he was starting to make a breakthrough opening up to someone who seemed to genuinely care, the swim team disrupts it. In his vulnerable state, his misreads Jeannine’s nervousness as playfully getting in on the swim team’s joke and abandoning their conversation.
The team didn’t come in intending to antagonize Conrad. He just happened to be there when they came to mess around in the McDonalds. But since he was there, he became an easy target.
In these situations, where the character knows the Third Wheel interrupting the scene, it’s not just comic relief or an irritant in the moment. The stakes are raised. The story as a whole needs to change direction, not just the scene. After this interruption, Conrad’s fragile recovery and his promising relationship with Jeannine are both at stake.
When a scene feels too straightforward, and the A vs. B scenario doesn’t pack enough surprises, ask the question: Does this scene need a Third Wheel to throw things off balance?