Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Using the rule of three

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Comedy, as we all know intuitively, is largely built on threes. It often shows the same thing three times with slight variations, followed by a kicker at the end, which is why so many jokes are built around three different nationalities, religions, or professions, like those about the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. There’s the famous comedy triple, in which two items set up a pattern, followed by a third that serves as a punchline. (There are countless examples, but I’ve always liked this one from The Simpsons: “Well, little girl, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day: whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network…”)  A similar rule applies to magic, which depends on the basic pattern of setup, development, and surprise climax. In Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms describes a trick in which a color-changing fan is used to magically dye handkerchiefs different colors, and then says:

Commercial color-changing fans can display four different hues. But this is bad showmanship. Dyeing one is trivial. Dyeing two arouses interest. Dyeing three provides your climax. There is no reason to add an anticlimax simply because you are prepared to do so.

So why is the number three so powerful? For the same reason that one point is just a point, two points is a line, and three points, suddenly, is structure. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and it takes three items to confirm or deny that a pattern exists—and it can be very satisfying either to be given the payoff we’ve been expecting or to be shown how cleverly we’ve been misled. Writing about The Godfather, David Thomson speaks of “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” as when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCloskey. “It is a killing in which we are his accomplices,” Thomson says, and three is the minimum number of story points required for the reader to actively conspire in the narrative. This is why most of our stories, from jokes to fairy tales to novels, still consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”)

This also applies to a story’s constituent parts. Narratives tend to have a sort of fractal structure: an individual chapter or scene will often have the same three-act structure as the story as a whole. This often applies to the movie scenes we tend to remember most vividly, which are structured as miniature plays—think of Holly’s first meeting with Harry in The Third Man. My own novels and stories are usually structured in three acts, to the point where I use numbered sections even in short novelettes, and that applies to individual chapters as well. When I’m outlining a chapter, I’m generally thinking in threes, even before I know what will happen: I’ve learned from experience that three story beats is a strong foundation on which to build a chapter, for the same reason that a tripod needs three legs to stand, so I always make sure that the chapter falls into three roughly similar parts, at least in the first draft.

And yet here’s the funny thing: when it comes to the final draft of a chapter, the first and third parts often don’t need to be there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of writing the middle—that is, of cutting the opening and closing sections of a chapter and jumping from the middle of one scene to the next—and I’ve often noticed that rough drafts spend too much time moving toward and away from the real center of interest. In short, the rule of three is invaluable for structuring a first draft, but in the final version, much of it can be thrown away. In my experience, it’s best to reserve the full three-act treatment for big, climactic scenes, while for transitional chapters or sequences, usually only the middle is necessary. The reader can fill in the first and last parts on his or her own—but only if they’ve been written and cut in the first place. They’re still there, but they’re invisible. And that’s how you use the rule of three.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

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