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This week: The Rule of ThreeEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter defines and includes examples of the Rule of Three.
“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.
~ William Faulkner
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
~ William Somerset Maugham
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
~ Three Wise Monkeys proverb
Rule of Three
What is the Rule of Three?
Many believe there’s an inherent subliminal appeal to the number three and that the rhythm of three things is pleasing to the ear/eye. “Ready. Set. Go!” "Location, location, location." "Stop, drop, and roll." Scientists experimenting with learning and retention have found people have an easier time remembering and understanding three things in lists or descriptions.
The “Rule of Three” is a device used by writers to add power to their narrative or keep it concise.
This device has been in known to children’s writers for years. The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and The Three Blind Mice are examples, and according to Goldilocks in Goldilocks and the Three Bears the third thing is always “just right.”
Using the Rule of Three in children’s writing:
“The rule is: jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam today.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
“Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times, and think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.’” ~ Frank L. Baum, Wizard of Oz
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound … Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! ...fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” ~ from “Superman” TV show (1952-1958)
Speech writers and politicians have the three rule down:
“Veni, vidi, vici” – Julius Caeser (I came. I saw. I conquered.)
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” ~ the American Declaration of Independence
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people” ~ the Gettysburg Address
“Tune in, turn on, drop out.” ~ Timothy Leary
Comedians often use the rule:
“She’s hateful. She’s despicable. I’m in love.” ~ Stan Daniels, writer “Taxi,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” ~ Mark Twain (attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister)
“I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.” ~ Laura Kightlinger
How to use the Rule of Three
The rule of three can be used to limit actions or descriptions to three parts (words or lines) so the reader can grasp it more easily. It can also be used to expand on an idea or to surprise the reader with a sudden final contrast.
Famous authors use the rule all the time. Here are some examples.
When writing descriptions, it’s useful to limit them to three words or three lines. Even if there’s a vivid picture in your head and you want to describe every millimeter, it’s best to pick your three strongest examples and be brief and concise.
Three words to describe an emotion:
“Longing shot through me, sudden, mindless, and sharp as a scalpel's blade.” ~ Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files - Summer Knight
Three lines to describe a character:
“He has been with the owls in evening and the rabbits at dawn. He has watched a spider work for hours making a web like lace. He has seen the sun tremble and the moon lie still.” ~ Cynthia Rylant and Lauren Stringer, Scarecrow
Three lines to describe a location:
The forest was thick even though most of its foliage already lay decaying on the ground. Both sides of the road were walls of towering maples and birch, mostly sticks now with only a scattering of determined red and gold leaves not yet willing to fall. The trees had twisted masses of thorny brambles filling the space between their trunks. ~ Jeff Gunhus, Night Chill
When making a point, it’s often useful to show two things that are similar, and then a third that surprises the reader. The surprise in the third point makes it more powerful and memorable.
“Be brief. Be sincere. Be seated.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt, Advice to Speakers
“About three things I was absolutely positive: First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him, and I didn't know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” – Stephanie Meyer, Twilight
I’m usually a stickler about not repeating words within a paragraph or a page, and I always point them out in reviews. However, when repeating a phrase intentionally, it can add power to the narrative. This is especially true if the ending of each phrase is intensified or escalated.
Repeats she knew and expands the description each time:
“But she knew him! She knew he was English, whoever he was. She knew just how his voice would sound when he spoke to her.” ~ Anne Rice, The Mayfair Witches
Repeats I felt and uses the Similar-Similar-Different technique to make the third surprising:
“I felt her hand take mine. I felt her press herself to me with another moan, and her lips, her mouth, devoured mine with ravenous kisses, kisses I answered with my own, harder and more demanding as my doubts faded. I felt it when her kiss turned poisonous, when the sudden narcotic numbness swept through my mouth and began to spread through my body.” ~ Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files - Summer Knight
Repeats no sanctuary to increase the power and impact of the final idea:
“If the waking world provided no sanctuary from nightmares, if daylight offered no sanctuary from unreason, then there was no sanctuary anywhere, anytime, for anyone.” ~ Dean Koontz, Cold Fire
Use the Rule of Three and make your writing more powerful!
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Iceberg!" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Robyn ~ In her new job writes: Great newsletter! Loved the Star Wars reference.
Thanks, Robyn! I watch those movies every few years. They never get old for me.
Vampyr14 writes: I love a good plot twist, but unfortunately I've become a little too good at seeing them coming. Especially in movies. I usually figure out the big reveal within the first third. So if a film really does screw with my expectations, I love it!
I can usually tell in TV shows “who did it,” but movies and books can often fool me.
Joy writes: Great NL, LJPC! True, "soap operas are masters of twists and cliffhangers" and they are also godly in bringing back the dead. The soap operas of other countries, however, do not go on and on. They usually last around 4 months. Sometimes, I watch one or two online, just for the twists.
Oh, I neeeever watch soap operas. I’m just guessing they have twists in there. I’m a good guesser, huh? (And a DOOL fan…Shh!)
Angus writes: Hi Laura!
Thanks so much for that plug in the Newsletter!
Have a great day!
My pleasure, Angus!
Osirantinous writes: Wow, thanks for mentioning my short story here. I'm chuffed that it got a mention in a newsletter about (suspenseful) plots, since my plots are usually pretty open and vague. This one's the opening in a series, just waiting a prompt to inspire the next episode, which will hopefully continue the suspense.
You’re welcome, and good luck on the next episode!
spidey writes: I hate to be that person, but what Darth Vader actually said was, "No, I am your father." Probably the most misquoted line ever! In all seriousness, though, great newsletter!!
Oops. I didn’t make the image caption, but I thought it was right. I’m glad you liked the NL!
9 years whew! writes: I love plot twists. I read two murder stories (sequels) that take place on the Titanic. They were pretty good. Original characters with the new ones added for the plot. All of it has to happen before the big ship sinks. Does the killer get away? Do the sleuths get to safety? What happens when both occur and now the killer is in the USA? Murder on the Titanic is a well crafted plot with twists. Scary? you be the judge.
Sounds good to me!
billwilcox writes: I love the unexpected, and as you so aptly pointed out, a plot twist makes for the best stories. I personally love to leave breadcrumbs, hints and allegations, angels in the architecture...foreshadowing. It's not hard if you know where the story is going. But on the other hand, if the story is revealing itself slowly as you write it, undressing bit-by-bit, it's a little tougher.
Good point, Bill, and that’s where revising comes in. Lots and lots of revising!
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky submits "Dead Rising: Your Story" and writes: Say "hello" to the zombies that show up in an alien invasion story.
I just watched a movie (“Skinwalker Ranch”) where they combined ghosts, giant wolves – and aliens! In their case, it wasn't very successful. Thanks for writing the NL!
Ŵeb☆Ŵiɫch writes: Hey, Laura! I just love twisty, take your breath away, surprising plot tangles that give us that satisfactory exhale of air and the "wow" factor!
Have a Happy Halloween, lady of horror, and keep on frightening on!
You always crack me up, WW! I hope your Halloween was awesome!
Lornda writes: Awesome newsletter! It caught my attention right away with the image you used -- very funny. I learned a lot about writing the twists and reveals in horror, and I thought it was great that you used the example of what they do in soap operas to keep ya' watching. These tips definitely are a fantastic way to help writers see how to fuse these into their stories. Oh, the image with 'Darth Vader' and quote was, to me, the greatest reveal ever!!! Thanks for the helpful newsletter!
You’re welcome, Lornda, and thank you so much for your comments! You’re always so cheerful. Oh, and feel free to use my “Shocked Monkey” image whenever you want.
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