When I teach or coach writing, at some point I usually mention the Rule of Three. I didn’t invent this idea—threes are everywhere in our lives—but I do find it useful for teaching writers how to pace their scenes.
Writing Tip for Today: How can writing to the Rule of Three improve your scene writing?
When I started using the Rule of Three, it was to help writers avoid “speechifying,” “talking heads” or encyclopedic responses. These monikers are pretty obvious: If one character climbs up on a dialogue soapbox and starts talking, the other parts of the scene quickly fade away. Soon, even if this character starts a real dialogue with another character, we get “talking heads,” if the setting or action is omitted for long stretches. Finally, the “encyclopedic response” means that your character is explaining in detail in ways he/she would never really speak unless we were at a scientific compendium.
The Rule of Three for Dialogue is simple: After a character speaks three sentences of dialogue, either switch to another character’s speech or insert a bit of action, the POV character’s interior thought or emotion, or a reference to the environment. The reason? A good scene balances the famous Eleven Elements. If one Element takes over, readers may lose out on crucial reminders about where, when and why they are reading the scene.
Writers imagine their story world in glorious detail. Yet readers will only remember the important stuff if the writer reminds them now and then. Use the Rule of Three for Dialogue to help you give readers those reminders.
Writers need not agonize over how much back story, or flashback, to include in any one scene. Use the Rule of Three for Back Story to guide you. Assuming your scene is written in past tense, your first sentence of back story (so unfortunate that the initials are BS!) needs a past perfect had to signal the time shift. We are no longer in the real-time scene. The had denotes an earlier time. Hads are annoying though, so after the first sentence, just go back to simple past tense.
After three sentences of back story, use the Rule of Three for Back Story to touch back on the real time scene. You don’t want readers to forget where the character is doing her reminiscing. Use the three sentence rule, or if we are far enough along in the story, three paragraphs. Just be sure to revisit real time now and then.
Remember, if your readers get confused as to when they are in the story, they can give up and stop reading. Prevent this by carefully and briefly touching back on where the character is in real time. This is the infamous Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule, which you can read more about HERE.
I haven’t written as much about this Rule of Three application, but writers can also use the idea when describing characters, places or other details. Ever notice how we tend to talk about things in threes? She’s rich, thin and mean. He’s burly, weather-worn and tough. When we give readers a picture of our story world, we want just enough to plant an understanding in reader minds.
Unless we’re writing a book about fashion, it’s not necessary or advisable to start at a character’s head and proceed to mention every detail to his feet. When you meet someone for the first time in life, you probably notice only a few select details. Pay attention to bank robber descriptions—they reflect the way we observe. If we bury readers in details, they will have a harder time finding the action.
The Rule of Three for Details can help you pace your descriptions and boil them down to their essences. Can you think of any other uses for the Rule of Three? I’d love to hear them!
5 comments on “Write Better Scenes with the Rule of Three”
Great advice once again. Even if you didn’t invent the rule of three, it’s good to be reminded of it.
I like to think I invented The Rule of Three for writing techniques, ha ha. It’s a handy thing to help guide us–not really a rule. Although Rule sounds much more bossy.
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