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Rule of Three

Monday, July 10, 2006
First off, don’t forget that today is the first day of Samhain’s READER APPRECIATION Week! Check out the Café for excerpts and contests from our Mystery/Suspense/Thriller authors.

In addition, Diana Peterfreund is hosting a workshop on Pitching at Conferences over in the Romance Divas Author of the Month section.

Now, on to our Monday Meandering.

Rule of Three

I’ve been doing a lot of fairy tale reading lately. Particularly my childhood favorite, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which are Scandinavian fairy tales. They’re generally familiar, since they’ve made the rounds in one way or another through lots of European traditions. Cinderella (even a Cinder-fella version!), the Twelve Dancing Princesses (except in these stories there were always three princesses and three brothers/companions), The Glass Hill, etc.

So. Three. Is a magic number, yes it is. It’s a magic number. Er, sorry. Sela steps out of her groove thang and back onto topic.

Three is a HUGE deal in fairy tales and I finally decided to ask the question. Why? Why three? Why not eight? Or two? Or four?

Because three is just right.

The first time the beggar boy charges up the glass hill in bronze armor, it proves he can do it. At least a bit. This is the charge addresses the challenge.

The second time the beggar boy charges up the hill, he’s in silver armor. This is the charge that sets the pattern.

But the third time? The third time something happens. The entry to the cave where he keeps his golden armor is blocked. The horse throws a golden shoe. The king pours oil on the glass hill. But he triumphs through adversity. His golden armor is so bright that he gleams like a second sun, especially in the eyes of his two older brothers (see? There’s that three again) who mocked him. The third charge is the one that completes the pattern.

They never fail on the third charge.

That’s just fine for fairy tales, but does it translate into other genres?

In comedy – or maybe especially in comedy, threes are important.

I found an article about how threes are the perfect set up for a punch line.

“The first two items in the triplet set the pattern (the "straight" line) and the third item breaks the pattern (the twist). Breaking the pattern heightens the tension and creates the surprise, usually resulting in laughter.” For example:
“Same Category/Same Category/Different Category (T-shirt which lists world-class cities: Paris/Tokyo/Fargo).”

Ok, that was lame. It doesn’t always result in laughter. Anyway.

We like stories that come in threes. Think of Nora and her trilogies. Blond, brunette, redhead. Demure, sex kitten, tomboy. Gotta have room for all three of them, right?

But for our purposes, it’s a lot simpler than any of that.

Thank Aristotle for it, but our basic storytelling paradigm runs in three acts. The problem is set up in Act I, the plans of our characters lays in ruins at the end of Act II and Act III is all about resolution.

And they all lived Happily Ever After.
7/10/2006 12:32:00 AM : : Sela Carsen : : 8 Comments


I adore fairy tales and the rule of three. It even works in decorating. :o)

By Blogger Kristen Painter, at 11:04 AM  

I love fairy tales. When I studied abroad in Paris in college I took the coolest class. It was a pyschology of fairy tales class.

And SHE'S GOT LEGS, my chick lit short, is a retelling of Cinderella.

By Blogger Amanda Brice, at 11:21 AM  

I REMEMBER East of the Sun and West of the Moon! (gasp!)
Good stuff!

By Anonymous raine, at 11:50 AM  

Oh, wow, love the new look Sela! Fantastic!

By Blogger Sandra Ruttan, at 8:52 PM  

I've been reading and studying fairy tales as long as I can remember. I did my senior thesis on them in high school. Too bad I lost all those brain cells. Can't remember a thing.

The rule of three works in just about everything, Kristen. It's just such a balanced number.

Amanda, that sounds like such a great class! I love fairy tale twists. SGL sounds like fun!

OMG Raine!! You KNOW EotSWotM?!?! Nobody ever knows that book!!! I had the most beautiful edition, but I loaned it out when I was young and stupid and never saw it again.

The current one is lovely because dh knew how much I missed my old one and went to a lot of trouble to replace it for me.

Thanks, Sandra! I've got a coffee thing on my website and now on my blog and my avatar. Today I had a triple shot of espresso in my grande mocha and three cups of regular coffee. I had a lot to get done, but now I feel icky.

By Blogger Sela Carsen, at 9:03 PM  

The trinity rules.

By Blogger Bernita, at 10:48 AM  

Sela, I remember it well--had it when I was little.
That, plus another called "King of the Golden River" were two of my favs!

By Anonymous raine, at 1:40 PM  

It sure does, Bernita. I've discovered that I use it quite unconsciously in story-telling. It's the twist in the tail.

I don't know that one, Raine, but now I'll keep an eye open for it. Thanks for the tip!

By Blogger Sela Carsen, at 5:54 PM  

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