The Rule of Three: Long-Range
The Rule of Three often occurs within writing, and whilst it does not have to be adhered to, understanding it lets you to use or discard it when necessary. This essay will be looking at a long-range aspect.
When we measure time in the long-term we use years, centuries and millennia. In the same way, when we write we use acts, character arcs and trilogies, and these will be three elements of focus.
Stories tend to follow the traditional three act structure, even if the interpretation is loose. As four or five act pieces basically involve splitting acts in half, even they can obey the Rule of Three. The basis of the three act structure can be broken down in the tradition of all stories: beginning, middle, and end.
The first act is the beginning: it sets up the status quo of the story and introduces the main characters, then an inciting incident sets the story on its path, and finally a decision (or lack thereof) by the protagonist causes the narrative to pass the point of no return.
The second act is the middle: the protagonist encounters obstacles leading firstly to the midpoint of the story, and then later to the main culmination of the second act and subsequent resolution, via a character change. Subplots often run concurrently with the second act.
The third act is the end: the main story and primary subplot collide to create new tension and a twist, leading to the final culmination and then the eventual resolution of the narrative.
Some tales remove some of or the entire first and/or third act; yet the saga is still there, even if it is off the page, as the narrative told becomes a vignette of a larger, insinuated story.
The journeys characters embark upon – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual – reflect the same triad as the three acts. Every journey starts in one place and ends somewhere, and there is travelling in the middle. Even if your character comes full circle and returns to their starting point, they had to leave to make their way back; as such the Rule of Three is displayed.
In Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmond Dantès goes from a naïve, uneducated sailor to a well-schooled and travelled escaped convict consumed by a desire for revenge, and then finally to a father and husband when his world is reconciled. The chief antagonist Fernand Mondego progresses from jealous friend to betrayer who takes over Dantès’ abandoned life, eventually revealing his true colours as a selfish and cowardly manipulator. Other characters within the novel also go through a three-step change, all ending in a different place to where they began; whether that be physically, emotionally, spiritually, or a combination of two or three of these.
Within the middle part of each character’s journey there is another triplet as they face their challenge, overcome it, and are changed as a result. Furthermore, the steps of each character arc can further be diluted into trios as each element, sequence, and stage is dynamically triple.
The Rule of Three is further demonstrated outside of a single, complete story. When writers dream up longer, overarching narratives, they usually do so with a trilogy in mind.
Young Adult series such as The Hunger Games conform to this pattern particularly well, but longer series that span more than three books still can be sub-grouped into three parts: the introduction, ascension, and the dominion of the story; as with each volume the world in which the tale is told becomes richer and more in-depth.
The full series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is comically described as a trilogy in five parts, yet that is exactly how it is structured. Similarly, A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin is still progressing through its third stage as an epic thematic trilogy, although it is split into more than three books and each is divided into separate stories of multiple characters, some of whom are shorter than the book which contains it and others which last over several.
The list of examples that demonstrate the Rule of Three at a long-range level can go on: overarching story themes tend to follow a pattern of three sections in parallel with the three acts; primary genres often have elements of two others embedded within them, making them a natural triplet; stories are told in either first, second, or third-person.
The Rule of Three is not a fixed rule you have to enact, but rather something writers are naturally inclined to do. By having an awareness of it you can either follow it or purposefully disregard it; and by playing on it create a subliminal reaction within your readers. It is a tool, much like any other, which can be used to either benefit or hinder your writing, but by understanding the principles that it encompasses you can shape your work to stand out from the multitude of by-the-numbers stories whilst still following the natural patterns that our minds expect to find.
© 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.