Thursday, April 04, 2013

Thursday Talktime: Using three to help with plotting

PHS editor and Harlequin Historical author Michelle Styles explains how to use the Rule of three

Hopefully from my Troupe of Tropes post, people have a better understanding of tropes and their importance to fiction as a whole. One of the problems I had as an unpublished author was learning to recognise patterns and tropes. In other words, seeing behind the furnishings to the basic bare bones story.
It is a skill worth cultivating because then you can make sure your story has all the requisite scenes and you also know how to market it better to agents and editors.
The first thing is to have a good working knowledge of the genre as well as myths, folktales and fairy tales.
If you start by looking at fairy tales, you will see often the stories have patterns  beyond the obvious -- the hero needs to win the princess. These patterns resonate with the subconscious because they are so pervasive. And as you look, you suddenly see number patterns loom large. Numbers which are used frequently include  2 (the couple or evil v good), seven, or tweleve but of all the numbers, the number 3 is used most often.
The use of three is important and all encompassing. The Greeks called it the tricolon. Sometimes it is three wishes or three days to complete a task. The hero/heroine will often be part of a trilogy. If it is a Cinderella story, the plus two will work against her.  But sometimes she will acquire two allies or have two best friends who are complete opposites (think Nancy Drew with George and Bess). Harry Potter has Ron and Hermione.  If it is more a Wizard of Oz type story, she will acquire three allies who represent things she needs to acquire in herself.  Or the 3 Musketeers who supported D'Artagnan who is the young and naive hero. Or with Harry Potter --Dumbledore, Hagrid and Professor Macgonal. With the allies, they will also bring gifts/knowledge that the hero or heroine needs to succeed. it does tend to be three things.
In mythology, there are the Nourns -- the three fates.
You will also often see the pattern of fail, fail, succeed or same, same, different. For example if you have a wood cutter's son. His two older brothers will attempt the task (generally to win the princess) and fail but because he stops and helps out three other creatures, he can complete the three tasks set before him.  The three little pigs is also a case in point. Fail, fail, succeed.
It is a rhythm which resonates.
So when you are plotting, think in terms of three or clusters of three can help. Three acts! And when you start looking three is all around you. Use it to make your story more powerful.
To learn more about number patterns and how they can help, I would suggest looking at Alexandra Sokoloff's Writing Love  Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II. There is so much to love about that book.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate (you see a 3 -- same, same different) historical romance for Harlequin Historical. Her latest book An Ideal Husband? was published in April 2013. You can read more about Michelle and her books on



  1. That's fascinating, Michelle. Thanks for sharing - I'll be looking out for those patterns of three from now on.

  2. Once you know about it, you can incorporate them. A lot of mottos or sayings are based on 3 -- I came, I saw, I conquered or faith, hope and charity. In both these cases it is short, short, multi syllable.
    It makes sense to use the rhythm.