Years ago I attended a workshop by author Alfie Thompson on using movies to guide and plot your fiction. It was while sitting in her workshop that I learned about the rule of threes in writing. Alfie contends that no matter how improbable something is, if your reader sees it three times they tend to buy into the idea. Thus the writer's rule of threes. Alfie's example was the movie "While You Were Sleeping." She asked us to note in the opening "ordinary world" how the screenwriter and director showed two random people slipping on sidewalk ice. The one I remember most is the paperboy who was on a bike, threw the paper and slipped in a safe yet comical way. The audience laughed. It seemed to set the tone that this movie was going to be funny and charming. Alfie told us that the reason for showing these two people-who have nothing to do with the story- slipping on ice in the opening was to set up for a later scene. The only other time in the entire movie anyone slips on the ice is when the hero and heroine are crossing the sidewalk and the heroine slips. The hero helps her up establishing a socially forbidden closeness and then slips himself, taking her back down with him and ripping his pants. Then, after much pawing and sliding, when they both safely slide off the ice the hero asks the heroine if he can borrow her pants since his pair is ripped. The heroine disclaims in horror that she would rather kill herself then fit into his pants.
This was a charming way of allowing the characters to touch each other intimately at a time when they would not usually pass that boundary and also brings the focus to both the heroine's slenderness and the hero's manly physic. It is a scene that gets them thinking about each other in a more intimate way- it is also the only time there is a patch if ice on the sidewalk. No one thinks of the ice as a plot device because the opening established in two small isolated incidences that the sidewalks are slippery.
Storytellers use the rule of threes to bring believability to a story. This is why, in my previous blogs on The Hero's Journey and World Building, I mention to have incidents or trials come in threes. Thus allowing the reader to believe that something can happen readily in your story and is never pulled out of the story or surprised when purple bats attack.
Next time you are watching a movie or a television show pay attention to the small details and see if you can spot the rule of three slipped into the story. For more interesting ways to use movies in your fiction, check out Alfie's book, "Lights, Camera, Fiction."
What ways do you use the rule of three in your work?