Friday, July 15, 2005

The Rule of Three

I have been continuing to read Ansen Dibell's plot book and have found more gems in it. One of those is her "Rule of Three."* The idea is that you should employ a plot element three times to show its importance in the story. She explains this using the analogy of electric shock treatments. Suppose you receive an electric shock every time a bell rings. The first time the shock happens, you are so surprised that you don't really have a chance to notice the bell at all before its over. The second time it happens, you may start to nervoudly realize that the bell and shock are tied together and aren't just a coincidence. By the third time the bell rings, you're already tensed up and panicked before the shock even takes place. You can use this device to build suspense in your story. By setting up an important situation and having the character fail, you've delivered the equivalent of the first electric shock to the reader. But it won't be until the third time that the situation presents itself that your reader will be genuinely tense and concerned. As she puts it, once is an incident, twice is a pattern. On the third try, the reader knows what is at stake and can appreciate the character's effort when he breaks the pattern to finially succeed.

While I don't believe that you must follow this formula exactly, I think the principle that it embodies is quite sound. I don't think you need exactly three incidents, nor do I think Dibell is saying that the incidents must be identical. I think there should be a clear connection between the incidents, however, and I could be persuaded that three is the minimum number of occurrences that necesary to trigger the psychological response. My problem is that, like many beginning fiction writers, I have a hard time truly hurting the characters I like. I have a tendency to put them in situations where they have to struggle and the outcome is always in doubt, but they never really fail at the task. For example, I wrote a YA story in which the protagonist has a crush on a boy in her habitat. The boy is nice to her, but doesn't show her any romantic interest beyond friendship. This disappoints the protagonist, and she has to deal with those feelings. If I really wanted to hurt her, though, I should have the boy say or do something that is unintentionally cruel to her. It's important to the story that the reader like this boy, so he couldn't do anything intentionally mean (since I'd then have to explain the change of heart in both characters), but there's nothing stopping me from having him make her life difficult without meaning to. Even that level of hurt is pretty mild (though not, of course, for a teenager). One of the things I will have to work on is finding ways to have the plot hurt my characters while still being consistent with the overall theme of the story.

* A totally unrelated side note here. I recognize that proper grammer says that punctuation should be inside the quotation marks. I can't stand this. I mean, I have a totally irrational, unrelenting hatred for this convention. It looks completely wrong, and I would argue that it's logically wrong as well. In the above case, "Rule of Three" is string that represents a single concept. It's a word in its own right. Because it is a word, it doesn't make sense to include punctuation as part of the word itself. In dialogue, the character is expressing a complete thought in his sentence, so it makes total sense to include the punctuation inside the quotes. Who do we petition to change the rules of grammar? Is there a committee somewhere hiding in the shadows that we can entreat?

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