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 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:
- hero tries and fails
- hero tries and fails
- 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:
- the first bed is too hard
- the second bed is too soft
- 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.
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.
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.