Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rule of Threes

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?

14 comments:

Judy Croome said...

Very interesting Nancy. I have an interest in traditional symbolism and the number 3 is very significant (if something occurs once it's interesting; twice, it's coincidence; three times means it's a certainty - think of the 3 crosses on Calgary, the cock crowing thrice as Peter denied Chris; the holy Trinity; three gifts of the Magi etc and that's just in Christian symbolism, I could go on!)

So I can see why things should happen in 3's to convince the reader. Funny. I've never concsiously applied the rule of three to the events in my storyy, but now that I think of it I'm telling the story from 3 different view points. Hmmmm. Interesting.
Judy

Linda Kage said...

I always knew that Alfie was a genius! But what a great idea. I'm going to have to watch my next movie much more closely now and see if I can slip in a 3 into my WIP somewhere.

Thanks, Nancy.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hmmm, you know? I've never thought about it before. But I can see where this useful in world building too. I got to thinking about it and realized I've used it in my current wip, with a pendant...now I'm thinking, where else have I used this?

Nancy J. Parra said...

Judy,
I agree. I knew about the symbolism of three but I had never consciously applied it until I listened to this workshop.
How cool that you have three different points of view. :) Coincidence, I think not.

Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for stopping by. I do love it when a writer, like Alfie, can put into words something I sort of do anyway. Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia,

*big grin* Isn't it great to see the rules you do subconsciously? I think it gives your confidence a boost. It does mine anyway, when I find out I've been doing something "right" without even thinking about it.
Cheers~

Rosalind Adam said...

Interesting point. I'd not heard the 'rule of three' interpreted in quite that way. I've read about the 'rule of three' for children's writing, i.e. the character should try three times to overcome the obstacle and succeed on the third. I'm not convinced that writing should be quite that formulaic though.

Marilyn Brant said...

First of all, I *love* that movie, Nancy! It's a near-perfect romantic comedy, IMO :).

I remember other writers talking about using 3s in their stories: if something happens 1x = event; 2x = coincidence; 3x = meaningful pattern. Fairy tales are so full of 3s that I think we internalize the idea as kids, but its really great to use these concepts intentionally. Wonderful post, as always!!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Rosalind,Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

No rules are hard and fast-so I imagine you can have them win the second attempt and lose the third if you wanted to mix it up. The rule of threes is a way of creating believability in your story. It is up to you to ensure it does not become predictable.

Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Marilyn,

I do love that movie, too! :D
You and Judy both put it very well. 1x it's interesting, 2x coincidence, 3x a certainty/meaningful pattern.

Can't wait for your next book! Cheers~

MaryC said...

Interesting post, Nancy. When I study fairytales with my class we always focus on the significance of 3 as a "magic" element, but I'd never consciously applied it to my writing. This is part of what I live about the writing/blogging community. There are so many of these precious gem techniques just floating out there. Thanks for sharing this one.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I learn so much from your posts. The rule of three is new to me. I can’t wait to watch my next movie and put it to a test. As far as my own writing goes, I’m not sure how I’ve used it or if I’ve used it – I’ll have to think about it.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Mary C, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think three's are magic- lol, but I love fairy tales.
Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane, I bet you use the rule of three and just don't realize it. :)

Thanks for the great comment. Cheers~