Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Rule of Three

I mentioned in my Pantser post the Rule of Three, and since then I've had a few people ask about it.  The way *I* see the rule of three might not be exactly the same as someone else, so bear in mind this is only my perspective.

Think about all the "3" things we have around us.  Sayings:  This, that and the other.  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  Veni, Vidi, Vici.  Environment: Earth, Wind and Fire.  Stop lights, for Pete's sake!  Three is all around us.  Gold, Silver and Bronze!  There is something really circular about it, and fulfilling.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.  All about the satisfaction paying off, right?

The definition of the Rule of Three is: a principle in English writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things...  A series of three is often used to create a progression in which the tension is created, then built up, and finally released.

You can find more that that if you google, but I picked out those bits because those are the elements I'm going to talk about with regards to my own writing.

You know how you're reading a book and there's a dog and suddenly there is no dog and you wondered what happened to it?  What's the dog doing in the story?  What function does the dog have?  What does the dog show us about character?  Yes, people, even a simple pooch needs a REASON for being in your story.  And not just a reason - that dog is going to act like a vehicle.  And this isn't always something I've done well, either, but the more I write the more I become conscious of things.  Look at Hired: The Italian's Bride.  In the beginning, Tommy is Mari's companion, and her guard dog.  A gentle giant, he provides her with a sense of security.  Part way through the book he meets the hero, but instead of being a guard dog, he jumps on Luca and is very affectionate.  Yeah, the hero is someone to be trusted.  He also happens to like dogs...score one for the hero!

But later, when Mari is alone again, it's just her and Tommy, and Tommy is back to being a companion against loneliness.  Loneliness that is caused by being separated from the hero, not from running away from her life anymore.  It's a small thing, but it's important.

In One Dance With The Cowboy, it's the quartz.  First we have mention of the quartz and the bond between Drew and his dad.  Then we have Drew and Jen out looking for quartz - this really shows Drew's growth as a character and a growing bond between Drew and Jen.  And in the end, Drew leaves the quartz at his dad's grave - closure and forgiveness.  Important stuff for a chunk of rock, don't you think?  And all done in three steps.  More than three it can feel repetitive.  Less than three it feels like it's not doing its job.  Somehow THREE just feels RIGHT.

In my current WIP, I had the third of the three and had forgotten to layer in the first two - even though I'd made notes about it!  How silly was that?  The first represents my heroine's ties to the past.  The second is moving forward into the now.  The third is all about the future - actually, tying together the past, present, AND future, which is a pretty big load for a trinket to carry.  My hero also has nightmares, and I very deliberately set them up to show his growth arc of moving out of the past and into the future.  What he was afraid of then has changed so much, and so each nightmare has a bit of a progression to it.

What really strikes me is that we're not talking about BIG items here.  We're talking trinkets, tokens, pets.  But things that we, as humans, put store in and have connections to.  In fiction, you have to make the elements work extra hard, and so while a little piece of quartz might seem insignificant, the meaning to the character is very important. 

And I don't know about you, but when I read a story that has those sorts of details in it, I LOVE it. 



  1. Question? No not really - I think you put it all together rather succinctly actually - thanks Donna! Caroline x

  2. Hi Donna,

    Rule of 3 deftly demonstrated with skill of a seamstress putting together a patchwork quilt.

    Yeah, I was taught a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and end, or it's not a story.

    As for props like dogs and reason for their being in a story other than as an ornament, in one of my romantic suspense novels "Leo" (being a loving fluffy creamy-coloured hound) is murdered for the sole reason of letting its owner (woman) know she's next if . . .

    It's a real tear-spilling gut-wrenching scene. Mind you, the first few pages amount to shock and awe, the dog's death just one of three overall, and he's number 2!