It’s horribly easy to lose your way when you’re writing fiction. You’re zooming through a novel, and it’s all going so well. You’ll finish the book in record time.
Then it all goes to heck. You hate your characters, and your plot doesn’t make sense. How on earth will you clean up the garbage and hit your deadline?
The Rule of Three to the rescue.
Why three? Three is a mystical number which occurs over and over in world’s major religions, in mythology, and even in fairy tales: three wishes, for example. If you have a superstitious bent, you’ve heard that bad (or good) things come in threes.
Three implies completion. Your readers are subtly satisfied with three of anything, so you can use that to your advantage.
Writing fiction is easier, when you use the Rule of Three
“Three” makes writing fiction easier.
You can use the power of three when you’re:
- Planning novels and short stories;
- Creating satisfying characters, and plotting;
- Revising and editing.
1. The Rule of Three in planning fiction: story structure
Many novels and movies have a three act structure: Acts 1, 2 and 3.
- Act 1 is the setup, which is completed at the 25% to 30% stage of your novel;
- Act 2 is the longest part of your novel. (You can split Act 3 into two, if you like.) This act is all rising action, with a twist/ surprise/ calamity at the midpoint. Act 2 ends with a disaster, which leads to the climax;
- Act 3 is the shortest act and begins with the climax of the novel; the final 10% of the novel. It’s always battle of some kind, and the hero wins through. After the win, the story winds up quickly.
Thinking of your novel as three acts makes planning easier. When you’re dreaming up scenes, you can slot them into the appropriate act easily, and you can see when you’re missing some of the action.
2. Create more realistic characters with three character traits
Characters who are all good, or all bad, are boring and unrealistic.
When planning characters, aim to give each character two good traits, to one bad.
Your thriller’s main character may be attractive and courageous, but he’s also short-tempered. Your dastardly villain on the other hand, while flamboyant and scary, is also courteous. Aim to reveal these traits in Act 1.
You can also use the Rule of Three when introducing characters to readers for the first time. Some writers like to introduce major characters by presenting five pieces of description and action, but whatever floats your boat. I like three pieces. 🙂
3. Yes, you can even use the Rule of Three in revision and editing
Keep the Rule of Three in mind when you’re editing. If your beta readers tell you that they’re confused about the plot, make sure that you have sufficient scenes to set things up.
For example, if your villain blows up a train with your hero onboard at the climax, you’ll need to set up the explosion earlier. You’ll need to account for your hero’s miraculous escape, as well. A major scene always needs setups; so include scenes (three, if you like) to set up the explosion. In mysteries, you need at least three red herrings. You can drop clues for the reader too, but disguise them well.
This revision/ editing strategy is easy to remember:
- A read through, to see what you have, and to see what’s missing;
- Addition: add everything from sentences to scenes;
- Assessment: do you have all the elements which make a page-turner?
Whenever you’re stuck, use “three”
You can use the Rule of Three in many ways.
For example, a few months back I was ghostwriting a novel for a client and it wasn’t coming together. Finally I remembered “three” and dropped in another character to stir things up. It took extra scenes, and revision, but that novel was satisfying to write, and to read, according to the beta readers.
Have fun with the Rule of Three, it’s a useful tool when you’re writing fiction.
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