Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Rule of Three

When I am live in a workshop I am constantly referring to this basic rule of drama. But I'm not sure I've ever really gone into it here.

So okay, let’s get down to it: the Rule Of Three.

Hmm, how to define this…

Well. It’s a rule of comedy that anything is funnier in threes. It’s a rule of learning that it takes three repetitions to assimilate a thought. The Three-Act Structure – it’s based on a rhythm of three: Setup, Complications, and Resolution.

Three main characters. Three questions. Three wishes. “Third time’s the charm.” “Three strikes, you’re out.” “Ready, set, go.” “Ready, aim, fire.” “Lights, camera, action.” “And a one… and a two, and a three…”

As a species, we seem to love threes.

What this three thing comes from, I can’t say. Personally I suspect it’s cosmic. Really. Let’s face it: the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone… Father, Mother, Son… Father, Son, Holy Mother… Father, Son, Holy Ghost, three Fates, three Furies, three Sybils, three Wise Men, three Graces, three witches…. All the spiritual heavyweights come in threes.

It’s also a basic principle of the Fairy Tale Structure. The three-brother structure, or three-sister structure, the three-task structure, three activities, three key questions, three fairy godmothers, three supernatural helpers, three wishes, three magical gifts….

The id-ego-superego structure is a basic principle of Freudian psychology….

Think about it.

- How many times have you seen a movie or read a book in which you see a character attempt things three times… fail the first two times, and then succeed on the third try?

- How many times have you seen a character cluster of three?

- How many times have you seen the three-in-a-row pattern of a joke?

It’s a rule of advertising, of rhetoric, of politics: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” “Faith, hope and charity.” “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Location, location, location.”

Call it religion, call it astrology, call it numerology… however, whyever - this pattern of three is somehow intrinsically satisfying to us as human beings.

It’s often this pattern: Same, Same, Different. One is the set up, Two establishes the pattern, Three breaks the pattern with a twist.

In the Three-Brother or Three-Sister Structure, it’s Fail, Fail, Succeed. In The Godfather we see older brothers Sonny and Fredo are not up to the task of running the Corleone family, but unlikely youngest brother Michael is. In Jaws, we see scientist Hooper and ship’s captain Quint go up against the shark and fail, but in the climax, very unlikely Sheriff Brody actually kills the beast. In Cinderella, the two eldest stepsisters fail utterly with the Prince, then youngest stepsister Cinderella wins the crown. Sorry, I mean prince.

Think about character names: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid. Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether. Do you see that change in rhythm? Same, same, different. Serious, serious, joke.

So it is essential for you, writers, to be aware of the existence of the Rule Of Three so you can start being alert to its use in storytelling. You will find it in act structure, in dialogue, in character clusters, in critical events – it is rampant, ubiquitous, and shamelessly used in storytelling of every genre.

The ancient Greeks had it down, and named it, of course, as was their wont: in rhetoric it was called a Tricolon, a sentence with three parallel words or phrases. I’m not going to test anyone on this, but I think it’s important to understand how very long this rhythm has been in use (we’re talking 400 BC, if not earlier!). The Greeks delineated two types of tricolon: the ascending tricolon (tricolon crescens) and the descending tricolon (tricolon diminuens). In the ascending tricolon, the words increase with each pause; and in descending tricolon, the words lessen in length after every break.

Are your eyes glazing over? Well, take another look at these examples:

Ascending Tricolon
: Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.
Descending Tricolon: Dumbledore, McGonegall, and Hagrid.

I don’t know about you, but that to me is fascinating. I can’t tell you that J.K. Rowling designed those character names consciously as a descending tricolon – but a descending tricolon is what that is, there, and I’d say it’s done pretty well for her. My point is: why on earth would anyone not want to at least be aware of a rhythm which has worked on audiences for thousands of years?

Start looking for threes in the movies and TV you watch and the books you read (and the commercials, and the political speeches, and the news articles…). You will be staggered at how often this principle is applied in storytelling – and in life.

You know the question - what are some examples you've noticed of the Rule Of Three?



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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