The Rule of Three

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Re: The Rule of Three

Post by boozysassmouth » December 11th, 2012, 1:43 pm

Sommer Leigh wrote:
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?

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.
polymath wrote: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.
Thanks for the responses!
"Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy." - Dana Scully

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