Vicki's Book News and Articles

Craft: Rule of Three

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

I’m not sure who originally coined the phrase, Rule of Three, but odds are it was John Gardner in The Art of Fiction (I just ordered my fourth copy of that book; can’t read through all the highlighted parts anymore in the first three.) or Flaubert. I know Flaubert said that for a reader to be convinced something exists, it must be mentioned three times.

That “to be convinced” is important, because credibility is essential to truly affect the reader’s emotions. Unconvinced, the reader doesn’t care. Convinced, the reader cares deeply, which is what the writer wants.

In following the Rule of Three, the writer first mentions something. S/he might or might not give it emphasis, depending on the object (or event’s) place in the story. The writer can choose to be subtle or direct. (In the mystery genre, subtle is common for inserting clues.) The object of this mention is to foreshadow.

In a later scene, the writer will again mention that object (or event). The reason is two-fold. The writer is reinforcing the foreshadowing done in the first mention, and s/he is reminding the reader of this object/event.

The reminder aspect is important because, during the course of a novel, a lot happens. It’s easy for the reader to get caught up in the on-going story and to forget intricate details. (Particularly true if the writer has elected to be subtle.) This reminder keeps the reader aware of this object/event and signals it is important. Again, the writer might be subtle or direct. But this second mention does send up a red flag to the reader that this object/event is worth remembering and factors into what’s ahead.

The third mention is active. The writer foreshadowed, reinforced, and now s/he shows that object/event fulfilling its story purpose. The reader is convinced because the foundation required to justify belief has been incorporated in the book.

So the Rule of Three is: Foreshadow, Reinforce, Act to Fulfill Purpose.

Example: In Chapter One, we Foreshadow. The protagonist, a Kosovar, sees a gun in his home. He hates the gun and refuses to touch it. He knows how to use it; he’s used it before. To kill men in war. He considers war irrational, a total waste of human life and resources, and he resents that his country is again at war. He’d done his duty before, and he prays he won’t be called upon to do it again. To kill another man now is a greater burden than his soul can bear.

In Chapter Four, we Reinforce. Hostile soldiers take over a nearby village. A neighbor warns the protagonist Kosovar that paramilitary men are committing war crimes and could come to their village. The protagonist Kosovar puts the gun on his kitchen table and stares at it, wondering if it will kill him or save him and his family.

In Chapter Seven, we Act to Fulfill Purpose. Masked paramilitary hostiles attempt to enter the protagonist Kosovar’s home. He and his family are under attack. Here, the protagonist Kosovar must decide to defend his home and family or to surrender, to murder or be murdered. To shoot the gun, or to not shoot the gun. Regardless, he must resolve the gun issue. He must act.

Now, consider the credibility if there had been no foreshadowing. No reinforcement. There would be doubt about validity, wouldn’t there? A credibility gap. Also, the reader wouldn’t understand the internal conflict of the protagonist, wouldn’t feel the weight of his decision when he acts. The reader wouldn’t have an emotional stake in the outcome of the protagonist’s decision or fully understand the depth and rationale sparking his dilemma.

The reader might (and likely would) feel cheated, as if the story event were

convoluted or contrived. That it lacked justification and had been inserted only for the writer’s convenience and not because it was an inevitable outgrowth of the characters’ choices made as the story progressed.

Contrived and convoluted are not words we want connected to our stories.

Incorporating the Rule of Three assists enormously in avoiding that.*


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