The Rule of Three

The writing process, writing advice, and updates on your work in progress
User avatar
dios4vida
Posts: 1119
Joined: February 22nd, 2010, 4:08 pm
Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA
Contact:

The Rule of Three

Post by dios4vida » December 6th, 2012, 12:01 pm

One of my lovely critique partners is hammering the Rule of Three into my head. He's pointed out a lot of places in my story where the Rule would be helpful. This is good. I appreciate it very much.

So I was watching Elf the other day (bear with me, I promise this will make sense shortly!) and I was struck by how often that dumb movie utilizes the Rule. Three instances of the photo of Buddy's parents, three instances of "The best way to spread Christmas cheer...", etc. All those things were foreshadowed enough that we were used to seeing them by the time they were truly important. But the time they were critical to the plot was the third mention in each case. I thought you "had" to mention something three times before it became plot-crucial.

I know these aren't hard and fast rules, but in general, should you mention plot points three times before use, or two times, or what?

Also, does anyone have any tips or tricks to makes these plot objects blend into the story, so that they aren't blinking glaring REMEMBER THIS, IT WILL BE IMPORTANT AT SOME POINT early on? The last thing I want to do is hang a lantern on something like a "random" rock and have my readers go "wait for it, that rock is gonna be the last ditch effort that smashes in the villian's skull!" (as an example)
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

User avatar
Mira
Posts: 1354
Joined: December 7th, 2009, 9:59 am
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Mira » December 6th, 2012, 12:46 pm

Although I like and use the Rule of Three, I think it can be way overused. There can be a surprise element if you only use two or add one for four, just because the reader is expecting three. So, I'd say think about what fits the scene, not the rule.

And goodness, no, you don't want to foreshadow three times every time. You're right, you might as well hang a sign. You want to use foreshadowing very subtlely, imho. You definitely need it, because otherwise the reader feels you held back on them, but the more subtle the better. Sometimes it's great fun if the reader doesn't even realize you were foreshadowing, and they have to go back and re-read it to see you were.

I just read a great book series that was terrific about this. I was almost constantly surprised by the twists and turns the story took, but I couldn't complain, because the writer totally earned everything. All the clues were there. :) I highly recommend it for studying, since I think this is your genre: fantasy? The Mistborn series by Sanderson. His plotting is amazing.

User avatar
dios4vida
Posts: 1119
Joined: February 22nd, 2010, 4:08 pm
Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by dios4vida » December 6th, 2012, 12:54 pm

Mira wrote:I just read a great book series that was terrific about this. I was almost constantly surprised by the twists and turns the story took, but I couldn't complain, because the writer totally earned everything. All the clues were there. :) I highly recommend it for studying, since I think this is your genre: fantasy? The Mistborn series by Sanderson. His plotting is amazing.
Oh yeah. That was one of the most amazing series I have ever read. Brandon Sanderson is...well. The man's like a god of writing or something.
Mira wrote:You want to use foreshadowing very subtlely, imho. You definitely need it, because otherwise the reader feels you held back on them, but the more subtle the better. Sometimes it's great fun if the reader doesn't even realize you were foreshadowing, and they have to go back and re-read it to see you were.
Yeah, this is totally the key, and it's the part I really stink at. I either foreshadow way too much or not at all. For some reason that "sweet spot" just evades me every time. Hence why I'm asking about this, because I have a lot of foreshadowing to do in this WIP in particular and I would really like to get it right for once.
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

Sommer Leigh
Moderator
Posts: 1624
Joined: April 2nd, 2010, 11:07 pm
Location: Omaha, NE
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Sommer Leigh » December 6th, 2012, 1:54 pm

There are no hard and fast rules. So take the Rule of Three for what it's worth - a lot, sometimes, depending. Helpful, right?

Here's what I do when I'm writing and when I'm editing. If there's a THING that is crucial to the plot but shouldn't be blinking neon lights, I circle it either metaphorically in my head or on the page or highlight it on the screen. Then I figure out how well it works in the big reveal. I personally believe that nothing should come out of left field. The heavy lifting needs to be done early and often but in such a way that makes sense.

Take the rock, for example. If the character notices the rock for no apparent reason, one of two things are going to happen. A savvy reader is going to go, "A-HA! IMPORTANT ZOOM IN HAPPENING RIGHT HERE." Or they're going to skim and not really notice the character noticing the rock.

But the fact that the rock is in the yard when the hero and villain do battle is probably not all that important for the reader to really remember so the rule of three may be unnecessary. Maybe you don't want it to feel like a convenient god out of the machine moment that the rock is right there so you take a scene between the hero and his mom and set it in the garden while she's weeding. She tosses the rock out of the garden and the main character kicks it around with his shoe while he talks to his mom. There, foreshadowing set. He probably doesn't need to encounter the rock three times.

But I'll take my superhero story for example of when I put it into play. The protag villain's father, before his death, was working on a project that has importance during the twist ending. Because it isn't really important during most of the book but I want readers to remember it, I bring up the name of the project during three separate occasions. The moments are brief and the name of the project is incidental because it happens to be tied to three different inventions his father created that come into their possession. Then during the A-ha! moment at the end, the readers should be familiar with the name. During the three instances of the project name being mentioned, the characters never stand around and discuss the project, it just happens to be in the scene. In one instance it is etched on a lock on a box that holds an invention, the second time a symbol is found stamped on a weapon used against the protag and the symbol means the name of the project (which the protag translates for the other characters) and the third time it is written in a book. The important part of the first scene is the invention inside the box, the second is the weapon with the stamp, and the third is who had the book, not what's in it. So the focus of each scene is not on the project name, and yet its repetition will solidify (or should, if I did it right) when the a-ha moment is reached at the end.

Not sure if that helps or not?
May the word counts be ever in your favor. http://www.sommerleigh.com
Be nice, or I get out the Tesla cannon.

JohnDurvin
Posts: 160
Joined: January 11th, 2011, 3:56 pm
Location: Atlanta, Jawjuh
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by JohnDurvin » December 6th, 2012, 4:23 pm

I'd actually never heard of this particular "Rule of Three"; I'd always heard the Rule of Three of comedy, where you're listing things and you go: mundane, mundane, funny. And of course, in a movie like Elf, a plot twist will probably be funny.

As for the Rule of Three of plot-relevance, that actually sounds silly to me--by the time something's been mentioned that many times, readers ought to already know they should be paying attention to it, unless it's ridiculously subtle. If you're wondering about how to use little mentions of something that will only be important later, I would personally suggest two works that use the trope masterfully: the Harry Potter series and "Arrested Development", which has a long and winding plot that's more tightly woven than most novels this side of World War Two.
Everybody loves using things as other things, right? Check out my blog at the Cromulent Bricoleur and see one hipster's approach to recycling, upcycling, and alterna-cycling (which is a word I just made up).

User avatar
polymath
Posts: 1821
Joined: December 8th, 2009, 11:22 am
Location: Babel
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by polymath » December 6th, 2012, 6:26 pm

Three? Threes you say? What I tell you three times is true says Aristotle. He wasn't the first to realize the power of triplets, though. Uses of threes track back to the early narrative traditions of all cultures. "The Epic Laws of Folk Narratives" by Axel Olrick details the numerical superiority of triplets in ancient Danish traditions. Vladamir Propp Russian folklorist. Alan Dundes, Gail DeVos, Joseph Campbell U.S. folklorists, the parade of folklorists methodically examining ancient through contemporary traditions is a who's who of folklorists. Threes loom large in all their theories and conclusions. Three is an unmistakable tradition embedded in the human condition. Three is a sacred, mystical, and magic number.

Three refusals to act is common for act beginnings. King Hamlet's ghost appears three times to castle guards before appearing before Prince Hamlet. He refuses to confront Cladius three times before committing. Threes in middles and endings too. "To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether . . ."

Mommy calls the youngin' to come inside three times before he knows she means it. The third time middle and last names are used. James, come inside. James, I called you inside. James Langin Drake, you better come inside this instant.

Lists of threes, triplets express emphasis: I dropped the bottle. It shattered on the pavement. Glass fragments stabbed my ankles. Upside-down, down-side up, all sideways, a kilter, and junk. Vini; vidi; vici. I came; I saw; I conquered. Three-act structure: beginning, middle, and ending. Narrative pattern and sequence: Isolation, struggle, outcome. The children's fun teaching game Red Light. Green light, yellow light, red light. Go, caution, stop. Traffic lights, too. Threes everywhere you turn.

Threes are part of the rhetorical scheme of repetition, substitition, and amplification that signal emphasis. Artful motif, symbolism, imagery occur three times over a timely span, escalating emphasis at each instance. Growing over time like a seedling, a sapling, a mighty oak. Threes with substitution and emphasis signal time and wear and growth passing through. Syndeton: conjunction; polysndeton: multiple conjunction parts of speech use; asyndeton: none. This and that and the other. Here, there, yonder. He, she, it.

Anton Chekhov's Gun principle implies a triplet of escalating hazard. If a gun is in a first act, it better be fired by a third act. The first instance foreshadows the gun's significance. The second instance reveals more of the gun's mythology. The third instance, the gun does its harm. This is the contract of threes writers have with readers: If it's there at the beginning, it will be meaningful later on. If it's in the middle, it's more meaningful. If it's there later on, and it was there earlier on, its meaning is realized.

Once is a coincidence; it takes two to tango; three's a party. Three! Three-ality!
Spread the love of written word.

Sommer Leigh
Moderator
Posts: 1624
Joined: April 2nd, 2010, 11:07 pm
Location: Omaha, NE
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Sommer Leigh » December 6th, 2012, 7:36 pm

JohnDurvin wrote:I'd actually never heard of this particular "Rule of Three"; I'd always heard the Rule of Three of comedy, where you're listing things and you go: mundane, mundane, funny. And of course, in a movie like Elf, a plot twist will probably be funny.

As for the Rule of Three of plot-relevance, that actually sounds silly to me--by the time something's been mentioned that many times, readers ought to already know they should be paying attention to it, unless it's ridiculously subtle. If you're wondering about how to use little mentions of something that will only be important later, I would personally suggest two works that use the trope masterfully: the Harry Potter series and "Arrested Development", which has a long and winding plot that's more tightly woven than most novels this side of World War Two.
It shows up VERY frequently in movies, but is a lot more subtle in books. Usually the mention shows up in conjunction with the 3 act structure. Its first appearance is in the first act, it's lost or misjudged in the second, then shows its significance in the third. It also appears not necessarily as a plot manifest, but as a THING, which is completely hard to explain, but for example the heroine's dysfunctional relationship with her mother rears its ugly head in an incident, then reappears to an even more problematic degree, before being dealt with in a third and final situation -either the heroine walks away from her mother's abuse towards her or they make up, or whatever. You don't see the heroine deal with her mother four or five times before resolution. Three is the magic number. Three acts. Three reminders. Three foreshadows. Three friends. Three in a love triangle. Etc etc. It's not magic, it just works out that three is kind of the most natural number for things to appear in. Most often it is utilized without the author even purposefully doing so. It just *feels* right.
May the word counts be ever in your favor. http://www.sommerleigh.com
Be nice, or I get out the Tesla cannon.

User avatar
boozysassmouth
Posts: 4
Joined: October 30th, 2012, 9:30 am
Location: Washington, DC
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by boozysassmouth » December 6th, 2012, 10:33 pm

I tend to agree with you, Sommer Leigh. I've heard of the rule of three, but never thought much about it as far as writing goes. I don't tend to put a lot of focus on writing "rules", I usually just go with what feels right (or sounds right), as you say. There is something I'm wondering though, is the third use of the thing (whatever it may be) the actual use in the third act, or is it three mentions before it becomes important?

Thanks!
"Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy." - Dana Scully

User avatar
Mira
Posts: 1354
Joined: December 7th, 2009, 9:59 am
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Mira » December 6th, 2012, 10:43 pm

Oh, cool. You read Sanderson! I just finished, and so I'm telling everyone I know. He's amazing. :)

Well, I don't know if this helps, but what if you dropped the word, foreshadowing, and used the word "hint" instead. Sort of take the mistique out of it....?

You know, I think John Durvin rang a bell for me. I've heard the rule of three in relation to humor. It's a rhythm thing with humor. One, two, punchline. Although, again, it's good to mix it up and change the rhythm - surprises the reader.

Sommer Leigh
Moderator
Posts: 1624
Joined: April 2nd, 2010, 11:07 pm
Location: Omaha, NE
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Sommer Leigh » December 6th, 2012, 11:32 pm

boozysassmouth wrote:I tend to agree with you, Sommer Leigh. I've heard of the rule of three, but never thought much about it as far as writing goes. I don't tend to put a lot of focus on writing "rules", I usually just go with what feels right (or sounds right), as you say. There is something I'm wondering though, is the third use of the thing (whatever it may be) the actual use in the third act, or is it three mentions before it becomes important?

Thanks!
The Rule of Three applies to all sorts of creative arts. There's a whole lot of theories behind the idea that our brain perceives threes as sort of a "perfect" set of anything. It's an aesthetically pleasing number to us on some subconscious level.

In visual composition, (I'm paraphrasing here, others may be able to explain this better than me) you break up the "scene" (art, photo, interior design element, etc) inside 9 equally sized sections. Think tic-tac-toe game. The most visually appealing composition will set the main components along the lines or at the intersections. Similarly, in interior design the rule of three plays out that you group like items in threes for the most satisfying visual arrangement. Three pieces of art hung on a wall, three candles, three ornaments in a bowl, three pieces of fruit, etc. There's lots of evidence out there that suggests we process things in threes better than anything else.

So in writing, you see things grouped in threes all the time. This might be on purpose (like giving three references to a specific foreshadowing clue) or it might be on accident because the rule of three works on the author's subconscious too. In Harry Potter, there are 3 friends. There are 3 teachers with strong, constant influence throughout the series. There are 3 kid villains. Adjectives are very often grouped in threes. In the first Harry Potter book when Hagrid takes Harry shopping for school supplies, she groups a lot of descriptions in threes. "Barrels of slimy stuff stood on the floor; jars of herbs, dried roots, and bright powders lined the walls; bundles of feathers, strings of fangs, and snarled claws hung from the ceiling." Of course the oft overused "Tall, dark, and handsome." You get the idea. And of course, there's a reason why we have a lot of trilogies and you never see a series of 2 and very rarely a series of 4. Trilogies feel like a natural way to tell a very long story. The three act structure is a very natural way to tell a single story. A love triangle is romantic while a love square is weird.

But the idea of "rules" is sort of an accidental name. There are no rules for using them. You either do or you don't. Sometimes it works well, sometimes two of something is just as good. Sometimes you do it on purpose, sometimes you realize you did it by accident. With a 3 act structure, it kind of comes naturally for a lot of things to fall in sets of 3. I've heard some people say that if you want to have a named minor character you should have them show up at 3 different points in the story to give them weight, otherwise risk them feeling forgettable. I have no idea if this is necessary or not and I've not done any study to its application. It's just something I've read before but it makes some sense.

Anyway, that's about it for the poorly named "Rule of Three" idea.
May the word counts be ever in your favor. http://www.sommerleigh.com
Be nice, or I get out the Tesla cannon.

User avatar
polymath
Posts: 1821
Joined: December 8th, 2009, 11:22 am
Location: Babel
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by polymath » December 7th, 2012, 1:51 am

boozysassmouth wrote:I tend to agree with you, Sommer Leigh. I've heard of the rule of three, but never thought much about it as far as writing goes. I don't tend to put a lot of focus on writing "rules", I usually just go with what feels right (or sounds right), as you say. There is something I'm wondering though, is the third use of the thing (whatever it may be) the actual use in the third act, or is it three mentions before it becomes important?

Thanks!
The principle of threes allows for whatever works on a small, medium, or large scale structure. Small, situational, one, two, three lists. Large extended, first act instance, second act instance, third act instance. Broader sweep? A central encompassing theme, a sub theme for narrowed focus, a more narrowly focused sub-sub theme for allegory, for example. Small to medium to large structure, both situational and extended, motifs that repeat in lists in a scene, though with substitution and amplification for emphasis, then repeat, substitute, and amplify again in a later scene, and again in a later act. Motifs can be objects, characters, events; ideas, actions, emotions; dialogue, thoughts, indirect discourse; symbolism, imagery, sensation; anything, everything, something.

Rules or laws are what a writer self-imposes so that readers learn the writer's method and intent with a minimum of confusion. Principles are what writers cherry pick from to lay out the rules and laws they work within.
Spread the love of written word.

User avatar
Hillsy
Posts: 303
Joined: December 9th, 2009, 4:33 am
Location: Gravesend, UK
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Hillsy » December 7th, 2012, 7:05 am

Writing excuses, series 1, Episode 19, about 12 mins in....there's a mention of it there...I know there's another one (dan wells talked about it and I can't for the life of me remember the episode...) Anyway the exact quote is:
"You should mention something 3 times before you use it" - question 1 answered

Basically the "rule of three" is a cookie-cutter way to do foreshadowing. If you have anything that's going to majorly redirect the inevitable path of the plot, but don't know if the reader is going to find it "surprising yet inevitable", look back and see if it's metioned 3 times prior. Simple rule, easy to follow. Yeah you can do it more or less, but it's a concrete way of saying the more vague instruction "Foreshadow Better!"

There are some good examples: I guarantee you that before Kvothe finds out the "dragon" is in fact a Common Draccus high on Denner resin, Denner Resin is mentioned AT LEAST 3 times (The Name of the Wind). Also the Draccus (specifically one book, The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus) is mentioned a good half dozen times. That's the rule of 3 in it's full glory.

How to do that well? Well, in the podcast there's a hint of using a different context. In Shaun of the Dead, the pub is called the Winchester, because the landlord owns an old winchester rifle that doesn't work any more. They also say the landlord's a bit loopy, why?, because he still thinks that old rifle of his still works. Where should they hide from the zombies? The Winchester, it's defendable, they know where it is, it has food "It has the rifle. IT DOESN'T WORK YOU IDIOT!".....etc etc. Hey, guess what, the zombies attack and they're in dire straights "What about the rifle?" "It doesn't wo..." KA-BOOM!!!!!. In the Name of the Wind, the scribe recording Kvothe's story wrote the Mating Habits of the Common Draccus. His Loan Shark at the university is called Denner, and Kvothe likens her to the drug of the same name, she's also a bibliophile, even owning a rare copy of The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus......you see what I mean. It's obvious when you strip everything away, but of course the narrative around it is doing something completely different rather than listing things that may or may not be useful.

It's like those picture games you used to have when you got a big old image and the task was to "find 10 baguettes in this picture". The ones that are easy to see are on the table, or on a shelf. The really hard ones are hidden behind a tree, right in the background, really small.....the one you smack your forehead for not seeing is when a man is using a baguette to conduct an orchestra.

User avatar
polymath
Posts: 1821
Joined: December 8th, 2009, 11:22 am
Location: Babel
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by polymath » December 7th, 2012, 10:03 am

Mira wrote:Well, I don't know if this helps, but what if you dropped the word, foreshadowing, and used the word "hint" instead. Sort of take the mistique out of it....?
Foreshadowing implies significance beforehand. This is a form of implicature *. See H. P. Grice for coining of the term in his defense of the Principle of Cooperation, the Gricean Maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner, which apply remarkably to creative writing.

Grice has detractors; there are potential overgeneralizations critics note in the Gricean Maxims. However, the Third Law of writing, a principle really, not a law law, requires specificity as much as circumstances possibly dictate. This law invokes the four Maxims: sufficient quantity of expression to specifically describe a circumstance and no more, sufficient quality of expression to fully realize a circumstance and no more, an opportune moment's timely relevance to the circumstance, and manner or method of revealing the circumstance.

My term for foreshadowing is prepositioning. Preposition a circumstance that will be significant later. "Hint" is equally useful. Cue or clue will do as well. Maybe queue too? Queue the instantiation of threes. Line 'em up according to emphasis. The rhetorical figure of epistasis, adding to what has already been expressed, is one method that creates emphasis or amplification using foreshadowing and its subsequent payoffs.

* Davis, Wayne. "Implicature." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall ... mplicature
Spread the love of written word.

User avatar
Mira
Posts: 1354
Joined: December 7th, 2009, 9:59 am
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by Mira » December 7th, 2012, 10:55 am

Polymath, I like all of your suggestions - cue, clue, preposition, queue. I just wonder if the word 'foreshadowing' is too mysterious and unfamiliar. It suggest that you need to do something special, when really it's just dropping a subtle clue early on for what might happen later.

User avatar
polymath
Posts: 1821
Joined: December 8th, 2009, 11:22 am
Location: Babel
Contact:

Re: The Rule of Three

Post by polymath » December 7th, 2012, 11:48 am

Mira wrote:Polymath, I like all of your suggestions - cue, clue, preposition, queue. I just wonder if the word 'foreshadowing' is too mysterious and unfamiliar. It suggest that you need to do something special, when really it's just dropping a subtle clue early on for what might happen later.
The principles of foreshadowing hold a place in writing along with symbolism and imagery. They are connective tissue along with theme and motif that unify a work. These are writing tools that, while a short phrase only is a shorthand term for a complex topic, like show and tell, facilitate communication between writers and to a degree readers, like literature scholar readers. Use of the term and its application in writing demystify and familiarize foreshadowing. But every writer has a right to use what works best for her or him, only communicating with writers is easier to use the consensus-accepted term.
Spread the love of written word.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Baidu [Spider] and 1 guest