Monthly Archives: November 2012

A dramatic Rule of Three

Three is the magic number for fiction.  It shows up everywhere.

For example, there is the classic “three act structure“.  Dramatic theory says every story ever written can be broken down into three parts called the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.

Another obvious example is the trilogy.  Books just work well in threes.  The Lord of the Rings is the most notable example, which set the standard for Fantasy in particular — most editors who deal in Fantasy want trilogies, and it’s probably Tolkien’s fault — but it’s catching on for popular books too (The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Hollywood also likes trilogies.  Think of Amazing Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire and the Batman reboot with Christian Bale.  Most egregious is Star Wars, which started with a trilogy and will become a trilogy of trilogies.

If a movie is successful enough for a sequel, they usually add a third.  Sometimes they add a fourth and everyone agrees they should have stopped at three.

You may say that is because three is the longest Hollywood can milk a franchise, or because the principal characters get too old (it was getting harder to buy Tobey Maguire as a college kid), or too bored (after three turns as Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford wanted to do other things… at least until twenty years later when he made Crystal Skull, and see the above comment about “adding a fourth”).

All true, sure, but it’s also because of the mystical properties of three.

Yes, three.  It’s not too big, it’s not too small, it’s ju-u-u-st right.

Wait… where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah.  A certain moppet called Goldilocks and her adventures in B&E, trespassing, and vandalism beloved by children everywhere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Or I just snuck in a tic of foreshadowing as a clever segue to my main topic.

In this post I wanted to talk about the Rule of Three in drama.

In previous posts I explored two Rules of Three as used in humorous fiction: first, as a way to create Humor in the Unexpected, and second, adding a third character to save a humorous scene.

In drama, you routinely encounter what one of my earliest creative writing teachers (okay, my only creative writing teacher) called the try/fail.

In fact, one could argue drama requires a try/fail or it just isn’t drama.

So this rule of three goes like this:

  1. hero tries and fails
  2. hero tries and fails
  3. hero tries… and success!

Not complicated, right?  Well, no.  How complicated is e=mc2?  But that doesn’t make it any less important.  (Notice I didn’t say ‘explosive’ — I am working through the ten steps of PunAnon.)

In fact, now that you know about the Rule of Three you will see it in every book and movie from now on.

So here’s an example:

  1. the first bed is too hard
  2. the second bed is too soft
  3. third bed is ju-u-u-st right

What would happen if Goldilocks found the third bed first, and passed out there?  Scene ends, no drama.  Or say she found the best bed second, and passed out there.  Again, scene ends, no drama.

Just as in humor, once is an incident, twice is a pattern, and then you break the pattern.

No pattern, no audience expectation, no drama.

Also consider: what if the Three Bears’ cousins Ned and Myrtle were staying with them, and Goldilocks tried their beds too?  By the time Goldi gets to the fifth bed, your kids are bored with this story and want to play Xbox.

As Goldilocks has proven by experiment, three is ju-u-u-st right.

Short stories generally only have enough time for one plotline, so they generally only have one brace of try/fails.  However, in longer fiction, there are usually several plotlines with their own try/fail, try/fail, success.

For example:

Sam and Frodo first try to get to Mordor through the Misty Mountains, but the company is forced to try the Mines of Moria instead, and we all know how that turned out: Gandalf buys it, Boromir betrays them, orcs attack, Sam and Frodo get pissed and strike off on their own.  So that’s a pretty big fail.

Sam and Frodo are forced to ally with Gollum to use him as their guide, but Gollum leads them into a trap and Frodo dies from a massive spider bite.  Sam carries on alone.  That’s another big fail.

Fortunately Frodo was not dead, he’s getting better and he thinks he will go for a walk, so he and Sam re-team and carry on to the Crack of Doom.  But Gollum catches up to them at the worst possible moment, and the last try/fail is a literal cliffhanger that will decide the fate of the world, and we are turning pages as fast as we can, and… and… this time the bad guy fails, and the good guys succeed!  Main plot resolved.

Of course, there was another major plot line running at the same time starring Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails.

And we have another major plot line with the battered remnants of the Fellowship trying to catch up with Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails.  What would have happened if Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli caught up with Merry and Pippin on the first day?  Booooring. Plus it would have ended Merry and Pippin’s subplot before it began.

And yes, as with any rule, there are exceptions.  Sometimes an extra try/fail can work, and sometimes a single try/fail can work.

However, just like gravity, it’s easier to follow a rule of nature than spend all your energy figuring out ways to beat it.

And before you trot out examples of storytellers breaking the rule of three, make sure you aren’t looking at try/fails in subplots, or setpieces that contribute to an upcoming try/fail.  I’ll bet you are.

Another humorous rule of three: characters

Regular readers may remember my discussion about the Rule of Three when it comes to humor, when I explored Humor in the Unexpected.

It occurred to me that there is another Rule of Three about humor: three characters.

For drama, the magic number is two: two characters discussing, arguing, competing, fighting, et cetera.  A third character disrupts the flow, and saps the energy from the conflict.  In drama, you do not want a “distraction from the action”.

However, for humor, a distraction from the action is exactly what you want.  A scene with two people joking back and forth can’t go on for long, because the scene loses focus.  No matter how funny the scene, it has to accomplish something for the story.  It has to advance the plot, or reveal something about a character, or both.

So a third character can add some levity to a scene while the two other characters keep the action going.  If the scene is tense, the third character can add some breathing room, otherwise known as comic relief (see Humor Under Stress).

For example, take C3PO in The Empire Strikes Back, when he is stuck with Han and Leia on the Millennium Falcon.  His constant nattering irritates Han in particular, which is amusing to us, and adds comic relief because our main characters are in terrible peril, being bashed about by asteroids and whatnot.  But then C3PO accomplishes something very important: he breaks up an attempted kiss between Han and Leia.  He brings great news, but the timing was terrible.  It’s funny because he has no idea what he did wrong — but the main purpose of his intrusion was to create a try/fail with Han and Leia’s romance, so Lucas and Kasdan could draw that subplot out for a whole other movie.

(What’s a try/fail?  Actually it’s part of another Rule of Three!  Stay tuned to this channel for more.)

Another example is Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.  Unfortunately Jar Jar is only funny to audience members who haven’t outgrown Yu-Gi-Oh and Hello Kitty as high art, but without Jar Jar’s presence, the scenes would have been dry as dust because Jedi are supposed to be flat and unemotional.  And unfortunately, they were.

Oh what a movie that would have been if Lucas had hired a cowriter, like he did with Empire…. Sigh.

Of course, it is certainly possible to create an engaging and downright hilarious story where the two principals are flat and unemotional.  Take The Blues Brothers.  Jake and Elwood had a couple of weird habits, and a weird childhood, but that’s about it.  The humor came from the situations they created while they were “on a mission from gahd”.  Plus there were some wacky characters like Carrie Fisher’s character.

That’s right.  Princess Leia was in The Blues Brothers.

Conversely, if two characters are funny, add a third character to act as the foil.  The foil makes the funny characters seem even funnier.  He is the straight man… or woman, since in stories women almost never get to be funny.

As examples, Moe of the Three Stooges acts as the (relatively) straight man to his outlandish brothers, and Groucho fills the same role for the Marx Brothers (yes there were five of them, but you get the idea).

Note the second or third character doesn’t have to be an actual character.  It can be a thing or an obstacle, or even the goal itself.  Just something to lend a presence.

For example, take Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If it was only Don Quixote versus a windmill, it would have been amusing.  But when Panza joins in and acts the foil while Quixote acts the fool (hey, that’s pretty good, I’d better trademark that), the scene is amplified to hilarious.  The scenes where they are traveling together move the plot and reveal character, but aren’t terribly funny.  However when they encounter other people, or windmills, that’s when the humor starts.

However, like I said above, even a humorous scene must accomplish something toward the story.  It should have some action or conflict to keep it moving, and it must advance the plot or reveal something about a character.  Or why not all three?

Scenes that accomplish several things at once and still get a chuckle out of the reader are the ones people will remember forever.  Like the aforementioned kissing scene in Empire.

As another example, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, there are several scenes when Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are talking with Marvin, the paranoid android.  These scenes are funny because Marvin is playing the straight… er… robot in bizarre situations while Arthur and Ford try to extract some information from him, or get him to do something.  With the humor Adams manages to advance the plot.

For example, remember the scene (one of my favorites) when they are plunging into the sun, with the dialogue:

Ford, how many escape capsules are there?


Did you count them?


It ends with poor Marvin being “volunteered to” …. well I won’t spoil it for you.

But wait!  You say.  What about a story told in first person by an amusing narrator?

Well, think about it.  A story told in first person involves a second person: you.  The narrator is including you in the story!  However, if all the narrator does is tell you jokes, it’s a comedy monologue, not a story.  How long would that last?

But now the narrator only needs one more person to complete the triad.  For example, Slippery Jim DiGriz in The Stainless Steel Rat series has a delightful narrative style that is amusing by itself and keeps the reader’s interest, but the scenes do not become actually funny until he encounters other characters.

For example, there is the scene where he is trying to steal Get-stuffed candy bars from a shop, and he is fighting his invention while his schoolmates are fighting the shop owner.  If it was only him stealing candy bars, it would not have been that interesting, no matter how clever the dialogue with you, the reader.  The other characters, the distraction to the action, is what makes the scene work.

So my point is, if a scene doesn’t accomplish something for the story, if its only reason for being is to get a snicker from the audience, it has to go, no matter how funny it is.

However, you can save it by introducing a third character to keep the focus on the action, where it belongs.

Can you be your own boss?

How many times have you heard people say, “I wish I could be my own boss”?

How many times have you said it?

Me?  Never.  I am a terrible boss.  I can’t delegate.  I don’t plan.  If I did accidentally create a plan, it would be out of date by this time tomorrow.

Worst of all, as the boss I would let me get away with anything.  I could spend all day surfing the web right under my nose and I wouldn’t say diddly.  I would constantly pressure me to give myself more time off with pay.  At least salaries would be transparent.  And sexual harassment in the workplace is totally up to me.  Annual performance reviews are still meaningless though.

But being the boss really is hard.  That’s why managers make more $$$ than employees.  It’s easier to be a follower than a leader.

Don’t believe me?  I remember taking a management course some years ago.  We each had to lead a blindfolded colleague out the door, around the parking lot, under some tree branches, and back to the conference room, all without letting our charge get a broken ankle or bruised noggin.  Then we reversed roles.

Once the blindfold was on, and the blindness-induced mini-freakout had passed, I found it really is easier to be the guy being led rather than the guy doing the leading.

Try the above experiment with a friend, or if you have no friends, imagine yourself in my shoes.  It drives home the fact if you are a leader, you have to watch your step and the steps of the poor blind schmuck you are leading.  If you are a follower, all you have to do is close your eyes and put one foot in front of the other.

Assuming, of course, that you trust your leader.  So I guess I should amend my previous statement: that’s why good managers make more $$$ than employees.  Bad managers make more $$$ for a while and then are forced into early retirement and given golden parachutes.  I guess the lesson here is, even if you are an idiot, life is better at the top.

Anyway, not wanting to be your own boss is a real problem for an aspiring writer.  I have never heard of a writer being under the thumb of anyone beyond an editor and a conscience, and perhaps a spouse or a bill collector.  Actually that’s the same thing.

We all need an inner boss forcing us to write.  It’s all too easy to find something else to do, and it’s not hard to find something more lucrative, like designing websites or holding bikini car washes.

Instead of sending your Girl Scout into the cold world to pound pavement and sell Thin Mints to raise money for her upcoming jamboree — assuming they have those — just tell her to write a short story and sell it to The New Yorker.  Yeah, that will work.

(No I’m not suggesting Girl Scouts should do bikini car washes.  The two thoughts were non sequitur.  Besides, I would take a box of Tagalongs or Do-si-dos over a clean car any day.)

Thus it’s safe to say a writer has to learn to be his or her own boss.

Like it or not.

Sadly, my boss-employee relationship has begun to deteriorate.  I demanded a new laptop because seriously, you can’t get the best work without the best tools.  But I told myself no, the money isn’t in the budget, sell a story first — to which I immediately retorted, I saw you going out for lunch every day this week, don’t talk to me about budget!  And how about taking me with you once in a while?  Calm down, can’t we just shake hands?  Hell no, I saw where you put that hand.  Then the argument just gets silly.

Introducing: the Irn-Bru Float!

I accepted the challenge set down by my friend Stu, after he read my post about my world famous creation, the Coke Float.  He is from Nottingham UK, not too far from the birthplace of Irn-Bru and, as I found out, the only place in the world where you can find this bizarre but beloved beverage in its native habitat.

What is Irn-Bru?  Only the third most popular soft drink in the UK, just behind the international juggernauts Coke and Pepsi.

It has been made in Scotland for over a century and is available internationally, but not necessarily in your corner store.  You have to know a guy.  Preferably one who rrrrolls his arrrrrs.

It’s pronounced Iron Brew, geddit?  Apparently that is the original spelling, but in 1947 the British government was threatening to enforce truth in advertising, and since the soft drink was not actually brewed, they fudged with the name.  There really is iron in it, though.  But don’t worry, so does breakfast cereal and that hasn’t killed you yet.  (Seriously, there are iron filings in breakfast cereal.)

It wasn’t easy, but I tracked down some Irn-Bru so I could repeat my Coke Float experiments.  Okay it was a five second Google search, but just because it was easy for me doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard for Google.

“Will you shut up already,” I hear you grumble, “and just tell us what on God’s Green Earth does this stuff taste like?”  Don’t worry, I was getting to that.

The taste of Irn-Bru is unique in my vast soda experience: sodas from around the world and various combinations at the D-I-Y soda fountain.   It is sweet and fruity, but strong… kind of antiseptic, like cough drops.  I rather like it.

There is indeed a hint of orange flavor.  Well duh, you say, it is colored orange, but think about that a moment: when flavor and color are mostly artificial, if they coincide it is probably coincidence.

Plus, I was watching a show on History Channel that showed how our perception of flavor is biased by the color of whatever we stick in our mouths.  As proof, the guy tasted orange-colored apple juice and he thought it was orange juice.  Go figure.

So that means if I hadn’t seen the bottle before I took a sip, I might have thought it tasted like watermelon or kumquat.  Oh well.  I’ll stick with “sweet antiseptic orange”.

Anyway, back to the experiment.  Just as I used Coke to cover the taste of artificial sweeteners in diet colas, I thought to use Irn-Bru to cover the taste of the artificial sweetener in diet Irn-Bru.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get diet Irn-Bru.  Apparently it does exist, but the distributor in the USA doesn’t distribute it.  That makes him an oxymoron to me.

Thus I decided to use compatible diet sodas that I could get locally.  Given that there is no soda like Irn-Bru around here, this posed a special challenge.  I settled on a half dozen diet sodas that also averred fruitiness.

Warning: Just like last time — Do not try this at home!  Soft drinks are a carefully balanced combination of exotic colors and flavors that come from at least as intriguing chemicals.  Mixing them can cause unwanted effects.  Irn-Bru in particular is dangerous with a long and checkered history.  Apparently that’s how Braveheart got the blue face.

On with the science!

Combination Fruit implication Conclusion
Irn-Bru + Diet Sprite lemon-Lime tastes like weakened Irn-Bru; that sounds like criticism but it’s not
Irn-Bru + Diet Sun-Kist Orange orange doesn’t taste very good to begin with, Irn-Bru makes it worse
Irn-Bru + Diet Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale cranberry not bad, actually pretty good (can you hear the surprise in my voice?)
Irn-Bru + Fresca grapefruit sounds disgusting, does not disappoint
Irn-Bru + Diet Cherry 7-Up cherry was okay, but the 7-Up lost its cherry (this whole experiment is worth it just for that joke)
Irn-Bru + Minute Maid Light Lemonade lemon tames the wild pucker of the lemonade and softens the sugary smack of Irn-Bru, but since I like both, I’m going to say “no”; some may like it though


Irn-Bru makes a pretty good mixer for fruity drinks.  Goes best with lemony flavors.  Cranberry was a close third.  Incompatible with orange and grapefruit.  Violates cherry.

And yes, I know cranberry is a berry not a fruit, but since berries are fruits, it’s still a bloody fruit.

The Funny Thing About Humor Part 6: Un-humor

This is Part 6 of my series on humor.

What is un-humor, and why would I include it in a series on humor?

The easiest way to illustrate un-humor is by a joke.  Well, it’s sort of a joke.  Please resist the temptation to skip to the punch line (!!) or you will ruin the effect:

A guy goes to the doctor.  He says he is feeling terrible.  He hasn’t laughed in weeks.  He has tried going to see funny movies, live comedy, everything he could think of.

The doctor gives him a full examination and says, “Sorry sir, your sense of humor is dead.”

“Oh no!” the man cries.  “Is there nothing you can do?”

“I’m afraid not,” the doctor says.

The guy goes to another doctor and gets the same opinion.  He tries a third doctor and gets the same thing.  However, as he is leaving the third doctor’s office, the doctor adds, “Well, there is one thing that might help.  It’s just a rumor, but…”

“Really?” the guy asks.  “I’ll try anything.”

“You could try the great Kaping Kapong,” the doctor replies.

“Where do I find the great Kaping Kapong?”

The doctor pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “This is the address of an old friend of mine.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the doctor replies.  “But he can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a slightly rougher part of town.  He finds an old guy in a small office behind a massive oak desk.  He tells the old guy his sense of humor is dead, and he needs the great Kaping Kapong.

“Oh, I have heard the great Kaping Kapong is very powerful,” the old guy says.  “Here.”  He pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this woman.”

“Is she the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the old guy replies.  “But she can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.   It’s in a much rougher part of town.  He finds a wizened old woman working in back of a Chinese restaurant.  He tells her his story.

“I see,” she says.  “You seek the great Kaping Kapong.”

“Yes,” the guy says.

She pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this man.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks excitedly.

“No,” the old woman says.  “He is the Guardian.”

The guy rushes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a really rough part of town.  He enters a dingy bar and runs to the back.  There is an enormous figure in a gray, hooded cloak there.  From under the hood, a deep voice booms out: “So you are the seeker of the great Kaping Kapong?”

“Yes,” the guy says, trembling with excitement.  “Please hurry.”

The enormous figure swings its arm up and points at a door.  “Go through there.”

“At last!” the guy cries as he bursts through the door.  He comes to a landing at the top of a tall flight of stairs.  There is a shiny metal ball on a small table.  Next to the ball is a slip of paper with something written on it.  The guy snatches up the paper and reads:

For the great Kaping Kapong to appear, throw this ball down the stairs.

So the guy does.

And as the ball bounces down the stairs, it goes: Kaping! Kapong! Kaping! Kapong!

“Well,” you say, “that was actually kind of funny.”  To which I say, “Really?”

In that case, here is a better example.  It’s shorter, I promise:

This guy walks into a bar and asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says, sure, it’s in the back.  So the guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, four pink flamingoes come strolling out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches this in shock.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar.  He asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says sure, it’s in the back.  The guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, a two orangutans come swinging out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches in shock, but the bartender is getting suspicious.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar and asks to use the bathroom.  This time, the guy goes in, comes out, but the bartender stops him from leaving.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, five baby hippos squirm out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  The bartender rounds on the guy and demands, “Did you put those animals in there?”

And the guy answers:


What do these two jokes have in common?  Right!  They aren’t funny.

So what is un-humor?  It’s the joke that doesn’t happen.  All that build up, and then… nothing.

So when would you use un-humor?  Well, generally speaking, you wouldn’t.  For two obvious reasons: first, it’s not funny.  Isn’t the point of a joke to be funny?

Second, it’s breaking an implied promise with your reader or audience.  They will feel cheated if you don’t deliver.

For example, there is the dumbest, most hackneyed, saddest excuse for a plot device ever invented: the dream sequence.  (I would rate it even worse than deus ex machina only because people still use the former, and true examples of the latter have become thankfully rare since the Greeks stopped writing tragedies.)

You know how it goes.  You are watching a show, or reading a book, anticipating a big climax, wondering how the hell the hero is going to get out of this one, then bam! the hero wakes up.  Hahaha!  You fool, it was all just a dream.  Everyone is fine.  I, the writer, am feeling far superior to you and I am now laughing at your expense.

People want to get caught up in stories.  They expect them to matter somehow, even if it’s only to a fictional character.  The dream sequence is just a waste of time for everyone.

Now, I’m not talking about scenes where it’s obviously a dream, or it becomes obvious that it is a dream long before the audience becomes invested in it.  These are reasonable, if a tad too easy and cliché, ways to convey information to the audience.

I’m also not talking about yarns like Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm Street which take place in dreams because, in fact, people can die in them.  (Otherwise they would suck too.)

Anyway, I have digressed.  My point is, un-humor is like a dream sequence — a joke played on the audience, and not for their amusement.  Mr. Writer, we are not amused.

However (you were expecting this, right?), there are two cases where un-humor can work.

Note that I’m not talking about a last minute twist on the joke, where a character tries something funny and fails, but it then morphs into something more unexpected and therefore even funnier.

I’m talking about scenes or dialog that end in a big… splat.

The first place you can use un-humor is where a character tells jokes that are so un-funny it’s funny.  For example, in How I Met Your Mother, Ted is famous for his lame puns.  His friends tell him to stop, but he never will.  Then there is Marshall’s fish list — his standup comedy routine that was simply reeling off names of fish.  He thought it was funny.

Or the character of Dug in Up, who told this kneeslapper in his hyperactive deadpan:

Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.”  Ha!  It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.

The key here is, we already like the characters and so we laugh anyway.  Thus these are examples of Humor in the Expected.

The second place you can use un-humor is for dramatic effect.  You harness the letdown to play with the audience’s emotions.

For example, there is the scene — a cliché in Saturday morning cartoons — where the protagonist is failing and tries to win everything back with an elaborate stunt, and fails.  The hero doesn’t get the laughs she was expecting.  She comes off as pathetic, everyone abandons her for good, she is truly alone.  The audience is crying along with her.  Hopefully.  Plus they are mostly five year olds and near to crying anyway.

The failed humor dramatizes the fall.  It makes us feel rock bottom along with the character.

On the bright side, there is nowhere to go from here for the character, but…. up!  (no, not the movie)

Well, that wraps up my series on humor.  I hope you found it useful and, of course, amusing.

Think of any major humor types I missed?  Any more examples to share?  Sound off in the comments!

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