Ah, the Magical Power of Three

By Kay Springsteen

We’ve watched its magic in Charmed. We learn about the number three in church (the trinity). Celtic lore places great store in the number three as well – with the maid, the mother, and the crone. Three has been a number of power in many cultures throughout the ages. And it translates itself to art. When I was learning flower arranging, the basic rule was to work with threes – three main flowers, three complementing flowers. In the art of Bonsai, trees are encouraged to grow into rough triangle shapes. In drawing, painting, and photography, we have “the rule of three” and “the golden triangle.”

So, aside from the above mentioned TV show, how does any of this relate to fiction? Well, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or whether you fall somewhere in between, you still have to follow one of the rules of story structure. If you just start writing and finish when you think you’ve written enough, it’s likely you apply the structure after the writing, but you still have to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story, no matter how many subplots you develop along the way.

As a photographer, I learned the rule of three/golden triangle as a way to set up my photographs in such a manner as to bring the viewer into the picture. In art, this is done by means of lines and shadows that make up lines. Sometimes, in a picture, the line is obvious, as in a road, and sometimes it’s not as obvious, perhaps being in the movement (yes, even still photos have motion) of the picture. Motion in a photograph is brought about by the way the eye sees it. You might think that people look at a photo, see the subject, and that’s the end of it, but in truth, in photographs, as in any picture (from oils painted by the masters to your child’s refrigerator art), the eye tracks the lines. The stronger the line, the easier to track, and the more understood the picture.

In the rule of thirds, the idea is for the main subject to take up roughly a third of the picture, either centered or off to the side. The strongest line in the picture should draw the viewer in and end up at the subject. Take the first picture below. This is a train on the D.C. Metro line. Can you see the obvious line leading to the subject? From the lower left corner to the back of the train, it’s the track. The next picture, petunias growing in the crack between the sidewalk and a many-centuries old building in Annapolis, Maryland, has a couple of lines leading to the subject. From either side, or an obvious sidewalk crack leading right from the front edge of the picture to the flowers. But what about lines that aren’t as obvious? The single droplet of water on the onyx stalactite in a Virginia cave? The edges of the rock formation itself – the very thing the water is dripping from. Now, note the picture with the long shadows, taken at Market Square in Annapolis. Of course, it’s the shadows leading from the front of the picture to the mid-point.

But what about the imagined lines? The golden spiral is another form of the golden triangle, and is also part of the rule of three. In this case, best illustrated by pictures of flowers (and if you’re interested enough to go looking, in hurricanes). Take this water lily. If you start at the lower left edge and follow the line of the petals, you will be following a spiraling pattern to the yellow center of the flower, even though that center is not the exact center of the picture.

We can follow these rules for lines as we lead our readers through our stories. The writer is basically taking readers on a journey. We want the reader to start at one place and end at another and experience all of the carefully crafted detail of the tale along the way. But how those readers get there is important so they do get the full experience. We want our lines to draw the reader completely into the story the same way a photo should draw a viewer in. We may direct them along a path or road, maybe make them take a detour or two, push them through some shadows and doubt, or even take them on a roundabout (spiral) path. But the strongest line – the main plot – should lead the readers from outside the story to being completely embroiled in the story and invested in the outcomes for the characters.

However we lead the readers, though, it’s important that we have some idea as we write and/or edit of basic story structure and the rule of three. Take the example of a three-act play, and adapt it for your novel (no matter how long or short this may be).

Act One:  The setup. Characters are introduced to the readers and sometimes to each other. The very beginning details of events (sometimes no more than a hint) are set in motion; the readers will see the inciting incident, even if they don’t recognize it as such until later in the story. This does not have to be a full third of the story; it can and often is much less than a third—I try to keep it to about a fourth, but it should definitely not take longer than one-third of your overall story or you will lose the reader to the boredom of the setup because this typically shows very little action.

Act Two:  This is the center point of your story, where the confrontation between characters and plot occurs, and in most cases is filled with fairly intense action, with any subplots shooting off from here, as well as introduction of red herrings in mysteries. The story must escalate through this act, in terms of action and what characters have at stake. My stories are typically two-fourths Act Two (half the story). Again, as with the photo lines, the readers have been led here either directly, as along a path or road, or indirectly with shadows and imaginary lines, and the line leading them in may be straight or curvy, so long as everything included here can be tied up at the end of the story. The point of no return occurs just about at the end of Act Two. The point where no matter what the possible outcome, the characters cannot turn back from their chosen course of action.

Act Three: After passing the point of no return, the final act (roughly a quarter of the story) begins to rush toward the end. This is the part you want to write so tightly that when readers get here, they will be driven to finish the story rather than put the book down for later. The final act, the one that includes the climactic action cannot lag. If you look in the spiral photo of the lily, you see the flower seems to wind tighter and tighter, the petals growing closer together. In Act Three, your characters definitely do not do mundane chores, or throw a casual dinner party just for the heck of it, nor do they take naps. Everything in Act Three revolves around the tension of the approaching climax. And, perhaps most important, this is not the time to introduce new characters. As a writer, you must be fair to your readers and the villain, whether she or he is recognized as such or not, must be introduced along with everyone else in Act One (or in very rare cases at the beginning of Act Two). You can’t just pull a convenient villain out of your hat. Nor, in the cases of a story without a specific villain, or where a circumstance is the villain rather than a person, not have some sort of foreshadowing that something (the particular circumstance) could possibly happen. For example, if the circumstance that’s going to be at the heart of the climax is an airplane crash, give a foreshadowing of it – depending on the genre, if paranormal, a character can dream it; if mainstream, a pilot or passenger can hear a noise or feel some turbulence, and so forth). Most of all, Act Three must resolve any detours you took with your characters, and with the climax must come resolution and a solid ending. Even if you are writing a series with a cliffhanger ending for each book, it is imperative that you end each portion of the story on a satisfying note for the reader. Finish off a subplot even if the main plot remains unresolved.

Remember the rule of thirds – beginning (introduction/inciting incident), middle (confrontation and subplots), and end (climax and resolution). If you follow the rule of thirds, how you get your readers from Point Start to Point Finish can be as simple or as complicated as you desire to make it – as long as the lines are there as your readers’ road map.


6 responses to “Ah, the Magical Power of Three

  1. Great comparisons, Kay!! Wonderful as usual.

  2. Kay,

    Excellent post. You’ve packed a lot of useful information into this post.

  3. What a wonderful way of putting it all together. Enjoyed your post.

  4. Interesting. I’ll have to research more into this.

  5. Great post, Kay. I’ve read quite a bit about the three-act structure and feel
    I can never study the subject enough.

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