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Nov 9, 2012

NaNoWriMo Tip #9: The Rule of Three

These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works.

If you looked at your short story/synopsis or beat sheet and realized that it was too thin, that there wasn’t enough action to connect the beginning to the end, you might need more plot. There are several ways to thicken plot. I’ll discuss a couple different methods.

This is a quick and dirty method that relies on the oldest storytelling trick in the book: the Rule of Three. You can’t go wrong with this technique. It’s amazing how well this works, despite being so obvious. It must click with something deep in the human psyche. Jokes and fairytales and three-act plays all tap into the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three is, literally, storytelling magic.

You’ll notice that the Rule of Three is already embedded in my suggested short story/synopsis prompt. But if your plot is still thin, it’s worth giving deeper thought. Is the Rule of Three just another name for the Three Act structure? Yes and no. Yes, it melds well into a three act structure, but it’s a bit more specific way of thinking about your plot. You could have three acts of sitting around doing nothing. That’s not the Rule of Three.

There are three ways of employing the Rule of Three.

1.     Three Increasingly Worse Problems
First the hero confronts a henchman. Maybe he defeats that guy, but now he’s pissed off the Big Bad, so he sends his right-hand man after the hero. The hero defeats that guy too, and now the hero’s pissed, so he goes after the Big Bad and there’s a final confrontation.

2.     Three Increasingly Powerful (or Desperate) Attempts to Solve the Problem.
Think of the Billy Goats Gruff. There’s three goats, from tiniest to biggest. The first two barely escape the troll until finally the third goat is big enough to do the trick.

3.     Three Kinds of Problems
Another way to use the rule of three is to present the protagonist with three different kinds of problem. In Daughter ofRegals by Stephen R. Donaldson,  the heroine confronts an attempted rape, an attempted seduction and another type of attack from three different rivals to her throne. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three.

You can combine all three kinds of Three, as you show how both the antagonist and protagonist are increasingly committed to winning.

I admit, I fell back on the good ‘ole Rule of Three while I was writing Wing. The main focus of the book was on the changing relationship between Dindi and Umbral, but I needed something for them to do while their relationship developed. Since I wanted the fae to also be featured strongly in the book, I thought, why not have them face problems involving the lower fae, the High Fae and the Aelfae? That’s where I started. As the novel outline evolved, that changed to meet the story’s other needs, but at least I had something to start with so I wasn’t staring at a black screen.


Ink in the Book said...

You're right. This technique works every time. EVERY time. I've tried several times. Even with particular scenes and chapters, not just an entire plot. It works:)

K Gorman said...

You won me over with Larry, Mo, and Curly.

Diana Fourall said...

I think you may just have revived my dead work.
*dances in glee*

Tara Maya said...

Yay! I am so glad.

John Barnes said...

Rule of three works because the basic pattern by which readers/listeners/viewers make sense out of anything is theme+variation, i.e. establish the "regular" or the "rule" and then vary or break it. Two is the minimum number to establish a pattern; then it only takes one to break it.

So the first traveling salesman sneaks down the hall to the farmer's daughter and after he's had his fun, sneaking back, he hears the old farmer cocking the shotgun, and goes, "Meow."

"Oh,it's just you, kitty."

So the second etc. sneaks down the etc., etc.'s the farmer's etc., hears the old farmer cocking the shotgun, and goes, "Meow."

"Oh,it's just you, kitty."

So the 3rd (fill in blanks) hears the old farmer cocking the shotgun, and goes, "Don't shoot, it's the cat!"

The first thing the witches told MacBeth was something everyone already knew.
The second was something that everyone but him knew -- he was about to find out.

So the theme=things you don't have to be a witch to know, that are just automatically true anyway.

The third, though, was something that could only become true through his own efforts.

Variation: You still don't need to be a witch to know it; you only need to be a traitor to make it happen.

So yeah, Rule of Three is a good rule. But Theme and Variation is better because you can do more variations (Lord Jim first doesn't get into a boat when he should, then does when he shouldn't, then finally does when he should -- which makes his not getting into a boat when he shouldn't the powerful climax. One theme, two variations.)

Tara Maya said...

I can see how Theme and Variations would help keep the rule of three from turning into mere plot coupons, which advance but don't deepen the story.