The Rule of Three: Mid-Range
The Rule of Three refers to the natural inclination of the human brain to group things into threes. It often occurs within writing, and although it does not need to be followed as a rule, being aware of it allows you to use or discard it where required. This essay will be looking at a mid-range aspect.
When we measure time in the mid-term we use days, weeks and months. In the same way, when we write we use characters, scenes and themes, and these will be three elements of focus.
Fiction traditionally involves a protagonist, an antagonist, and a third party. Even when the scope is widened, each tale that knits together a large and complex story can be boiled down to these three roles. The variations come in the form of the third party.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or, The Whale revolves around Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and the white whale. Whilst other characters feature extensively within the story, the main thrust of the piece is constructed around this triad and their relationships.
Continuing on the nautical theme, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea almost exclusively contains three characters: the old man, the boy, and the fish. All are key to the story, and as Hemingway removes all distractions within his minimalist writing, these three come to the fore.
In the Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a large and complicated narrative – each of the three story threads feature a trio of character sets: Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf all take the protagonist role; Gollum, Sauron, and Saruman each are antagonists; and Gandalf, Arwen, and Elrond become key third parties. The characters themselves are also grouped into threes: Hobbits, magical characters (the wizards, orcs and Sauron), and the other races (men, dwarfs and elves). The book is then split into three volumes, further demonstrating the Rule of Three.
When writing, scenes tend to follow natural patterns of three. A fight is preceded by a less impactful scene like training or a calm situation to emphasise the violence, and followed by a pause for recovery; sex scenes are similarly placed. For pacing, two fast scenes are often separated by a slower, more reserved scenario; whilst two slower parts are often divided by a tense scene.
Key points within a story require prominence, and the best way to achieve this is to surround them with scenes that either have less bearing on the overall plot, or are a complete juxtaposition to the moment in question. Three consecutive arrests by a Detective investigating a murder makes each less important, whereas a stakeout followed by a violent arrest and then questioning at the station gives more weight to the arrest itself, and keeps the story flowing.
Elements of scenes are often repeated throughout stories as well. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal contains three specific scenes involving the assassin’s rifle: firstly, when he buys it, and its strange construction is introduced; secondly, when he tests it by shooting at a melon; and thirdly, when he sets up to kill his target, and the reason for its odd setup is explained.
A simple, single-themed piece would read as one-dimensional; similarly writing containing two themes can be two-dimensional. To create a fully-fledged three-dimensional work, three themes need to recur within the narrative; even if one is more prominent than the other two.
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity was one of the first major thrillers to deal with the concept of amnesia and regaining memories; something which has become a regular trope today. Other elements of the story focus on redemption for past transgressions; and also reinventing oneself anew, which is only done through the protagonist’s relationship with the main third party in the novel, the love interest.
The Shining by Stephen King also follows a triplet of themes: family strains and breakdown by the hand of the patriarch (the family itself consists of three individuals); cabin fever and the dominance of the location over rational thought; and fear delivered through psychic means. By playing on these three ideas, King creates a sense of paranoia that relies less on the supernatural, something that was developed further by Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation, much to King’s annoyance.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, despite being difficult to comprehend, features recurring themes of death and resurrection, sin and forgiveness or atonement, sleeping and waking; all of which are triplets, for example: to die and revive involves first life, then death, and finally rebirth. The themes invoked by Joyce are often fleeting, however all exist within a triad and as such demonstrate that even in the most convoluted and experimental writing, triplets still manifest.
The list of examples that demonstrate the Rule of Three at a mid-range level can go on: around each major character there tends to be three influencers; descriptions of characters focus on the physical, mental and emotional; key sections of stories adhere to the three-part structure of beginning, middle and end.
The Rule of Three is not an absolute rule you must follow, but a natural phenomenon within writing. By understanding it you can actively apply it or deliberately avoid it, as per your choice.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.