Some stories, particularly sitcoms and animation, weave together an A plot and a B plot. Quartets are handy for this structure, as you can divide them into pairs to alternate. South Park relies heavily on this structure. Many of your classic Dungeons & Dragons-style stories also involve a quartet. Characters can band together as a group, or they can each have their own subplots running parallel to the primary narrative.

Quartets do not all have to neatly divide into four, either. A solo character joining a triad can create a quartet. Sometimes, a pair of characters can create a quartet as well, like in Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Young!Sophie and old!Sophie both want to be secure in their identities, while slither-outer!Howl and performer!Howl search for a sense of purpose. At the same time, Howl’s Moving Castle also features a quartet in the form of Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and the Witch of the Waste.

There is enough space in the quartet structure for the characters to stop being only characters, too, and start doing the double duty of being a symbol or metaphor. The quartet structure thrives when imbued with such symbolism. For example, in South Park, the four main characters Kyle, Stan, Cartman, and Kenny remain the same, but they are employed as symbols of different ideologies depending on the needs of the story. South Park is able to complete an episode out in six days in part because of this recognition of the symbolism-rich nature of the quartet.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Explain how quartets lend themselves well to creating stories with subplots.
  2. Give an example of a story that centers on a quartet.
    1. Identify the four characters in the quartet.
    2. Explain their relationships with each other.
    3. Subdivide the characters into pairs. Explain what the character dynamic is like between the two individuals of each pair, and the dynamic between the two pairs.
    4. Consider whether any characters should be split or combined to streamline the story.