The Rule of Three in Storytelling

The Rule of Three is a very common tool in the writer’s arsenal (Do writers have arsenals? Would you keep a tool in an arsenal? Have I missed the point entirely?) which helps to build a basic but serviceable story, or even the structure of a joke (like that previous aside. I never said it had to be a good joke!).

The Big Bad Wolf and a Little Pig

Yes I know the wood house comes second. I also know pigs don't build houses, so stop complaining!

In storytelling, the rule of three comes in two forms. Firstly it is the three stock characters, such as the Straight Guy, the Average Guy and the Fool. Alternatively there is the Muscle, the Brains and the Inexperienced. Think Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman or The Three Bears.

What is the advantage of this? Well it’s simple. The characters are instantly recognisable to your audience. Newcomers can get an immediate feel for your characters because they have seen that kind of character before. You have to put your own spin on them, of course, otherwise your comic can be interchanged with anyone else’s and nothing will be lost but at least it is a handle people can use to get into the story.

Let’s say for example that your comic features Joe, Harriet and Tom. Joe is a former wrestler (the Muscle) now trying to be a responsible father figure for his new wife’s son. Harriet is a teacher (the Brains) who is trying to juggle a career, a new husband and an impetuous teenage son all at the same time. Tom used to be an average boy (the Inexperienced) but after a freak car accident, he is now also time-travelling robot.

They all live in a world on the verge of apocalypse, or maybe they fight crime. Who knows. The important thing for this discussion is that each falls into a clearly-defined role that helps the reader understand who does what and what their likely motivation is going to be.

Alternatively you have Zip, Yip and Donald. They are three convicted criminals who broke out of prison by turning a disused bathtub into a time machine. Zip is a crazed former biker who swapped his IQ for some magic beans (which he probably ground down and smoked). He plays the role of The Fool. Yip grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and made some bad choices but now wants to go straight. He’s our the Average Guy. That leaves The Straight Man. Enter Donald, a confidence trickster who got put inside for a combined Fiddle Game and pyramid scheme.

Together they go on wacky adventures that are fuelled by the interaction of these three highly recognisable character types. It’s the Three Stooges meets whatever you want them to meet. The trick is all in how you play it out, of course. Even with something the audience can immediately either identify with or at least associate with in their mind, you need a good story. That’s where the second version of this tool comes in.

The rule of three feeds into storytelling in what I’m going to call the Three Little Pigs System. The idea is that a story (usually a short story) plays out three times with slight differences each time, all building to a final resolution.

The first run-through leads to an inevitable disaster, necessitating a second attempt. Here the brave hero learns from past mistakes and gets closer to her goal but does not quite make it. Hence the third attempt, where she tries something even more different and finally succeeds. The moral being that just because someone knocks down your house and eats you the first time doesn’t mean you should just give up. Try, try and try again.

There is a different form of this, the Chain Quest, where a brave hero has to go on a mission that leads to another mission and that ends up taking him back to where he was at the star. The reveal here is either that the power was inside him all along; or the object of his affections was right before his eyes, he just lacked the wisdom to see it. It’s a nice structure too, especially if you want to keep your cast and settings fairly limited.

So, in summary, what can we get from the Rule of Three in story telling? Well, a lot actually. You’ve probably used some version of it already; either in your casting or your stories.

Sinfest uses it a lot when Slick, Monique and Squigley are together; playing Average, Straight Man and Fool respectively. 8-bit Theater used the Three Little Pigs System when Sarda fought Onrac. As a set of tools, they are great for putting together a basic structure that you can then add to to make something cool and interesting for your readers.

Alternatively, you can subvert it for drama, a twist ending or even humour. Subversions are great when played properly because they play on established rules to keep the audience guessing. Similarly, a twist ending (which is as difficult to pull of properly as a good joke but just as, if not more, rewarding when you manage it) sticks with the audience because you lead them into thinking they knew what was going to happen by playing the Rule of Three properly, right up to the final part. That’s a lot harder to do if the audience does not already feel familiar with the structure of the story.

As for comedy, that’s got its own set of rules, which we’ll look into tomorrow.

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