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.