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The Rule of Three is a classic in all fiction. It is one of the basic building blocks for successful story writing. It’s not new. Think about Jesus talking about the parable of The Good Samaritan. Two people walk by on the other side from the poor robbed man. The third one, the Samaritan, not only stops but helps the victim.
The Link with Fairytales
The Rule of Three occurs a lot in the classic fairytales. It is often a case of the youngest son out of three who will be the good guy. (Sometimes the elder two brothers are villains or just can’t see what the youngest one can and so fail to act as he does).
Then there’s the Three Little Pigs. Two of them are foolish enough to use dodgy building materials for their homes and either are eaten up by the wolf or get to flee to their more sensible brother, who used bricks for his house, depending on which version of the tale you read. (Still remains the best advert for using bricks for housebuilding too in my view!).
The Link with Plays
With plays, you have the three act structure.
The first act introduces the characters and situation and sets up the problem to be resolved. No problem equals no story, regardless of format.
The second act has the character in the “thick of it” trying to overcome the problem and either failing or having other problems piled up on top and all have to be resolved. There is usually a turning point where success or failure are equally possible at the end of the second act.
The third act is where the break through comes and the character has resolved matters.
Stories follow this principle in that the first section of the book does what the first act does, the middle of the book mirrors the second act, and the final chapters are the third act being played out.
The Link with Non-Fiction
Incidentally, the rule of three can apply to non-fiction too. For an article, you have to set the scene of what the piece is going to be about, the second throws up the issues the article is discussing, and the final section has to come to a conclusion. (Whether you agree with it or not is another matter!). And yes I subconsciously follow this for my posts.
Does the Rule of Three Stifle Creativity?
So back to fiction, does having the rule of three stifle creativity? Does it make writers produce stories in a formulaic way?
I think not. One issue every writer faces is people who read well know what to expect from stories. They know how stories work. So we writers have got to deliver on that. What we bring to the mix are our unique characters, throw them in the mire, and hopefully readers will want to read to find out how they get out of the mire. It is a question of not reinventing the wheel here.
I find having a structure to what I write immensely helpful, mainly because it stops me going off at tangents which won’t do anything for my story (and could bog it down). So following the rule of three helps a lot, even in my flash fiction pieces. All that happens there is everything has to happen more quickly because the stories are “condensed” so the rule of three will be “condensed” here too. I see these kinds of structures as having a road map.
A “proper” story for me then has to have interesting characters, situations they’ve got to get out of (staying static is never an option in storytelling given all stories pivot on a moment of change so there has to be change as a result of that), and a resolution. I expect the characters to have got out of their mire. (Having the help of other characters is fine though they have to be in the story early on so I know, as a reader, that Character B could be part of the resolution to Character A’s problem).
The Rule of Three – Repetition
The rule of three crops up another way too. Repetition can be a useful device in some stories and is the way to create catchphrases for characters. You need to repeat something more than once for it to stick in the memory and three times is considered to be the minimum here. I would expect a character with a catchphrase to say it at least three times in a story. For a short work (flash or standard length short story) then three times is usually enough.
In my story The Pink Rose from Tripping the Flash Fantastic, I use the word “remember” in relation to my main character, a lady with dementia. It is especially apt to use repetition for a story like that but it also has a rhythmic effect.
All stories have their own internal rhythm. A crime story is usually fast paced, for example. My dementia story is a more reflective piece and has a slower rhythm but using my repetition three times for my lead character helps reinforce that rhythm, which is what I wanted to achieve.
No Character Will Get It Right First, or even Second Time
Often in a story, a hero/heroine will fail twice in their quest before going on to success. I expect a character to not succeed the first time. I expect them to learn something useful. They apply that to their second attempt. They still fail. But in learning from that attempt as well, they now have enough to help them succeed on the third and final attempt to get their situation sorted out.
There is a pattern to three which resonates. Having a character succeed on a second attempt simply doesn’t feel right. Have them doing so in four seems too long. (You run the risk of readers switching off by then as well). I suspect it is the old fairytales, which would be amongst the first things read to us as children, that has reinforced the pattern of three in all stories. But those fairytale writers knew what they were doing, knew what worked, and were right to stick with it!
The Rule of Three is so ingrained most of the time we don’t even notice it. Next time you’re reading a book or story, look out for it. You will find it. If you ever come across something that doesn’t “read right” it will be because the story structure isn’t right. (And I’d guess the Rule of Three hadn’t been followed).
Writers are readers first so we pick up from what we read what works for stories and then copy that for our own work. It is how you learn to develop your own writing. We do build on what has gone before. The Rule of Three is just one aspect of that.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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