Working Writer Tip: The Rule of Three

When I started writing for a living, I knew next to nothing. Okay, I’ll be honest. I knew nothing at all. But I learned. I read and attended workshops and took classes. In each of those places, I learned something. Being a former teacher, I of course, have always wanted to pass on some of those tips to writers who don’t know as much as I do about writing and to hopefully make their learning curve less steep.

Recently I read a book by a new, talented author I know. Less than five pages into the book, I found myself flipping back to the paragraph where a character had been introduced in order to refresh my mind as to which character I was reading about at the moment. And I was soon confused in spite of my page flipping. The author did a good job of describing the characters, but there were just too many to keep them all straight in my mind, especially that early in the story.

As I read, I wondered if the author should have used the Rule of Three. And then I wondered if the author had even heard of the Rule of Three. And as soon as that thought came to me, I knew what I wanted to post about this week. The Rule of Three.

It goes like this: Just like few jugglers can handle more than three balls without dropping at least one, few readers can mentally juggle a huge cast of characters without becoming confused in the process and few authors are gifted enough to write a scene containing a huge cast of characters in a way that the average reader can remember which is which. Most either end up skipping that scene or, worse, putting the book aside.

But some scenes require a huge cast of characters. So what to do? Why, invoke the Rule of Three, of course. Group that huge cast of characters into no more than three groups. Think there’s no way to put dissimilar characters into one group? Think harder and figure out a way!

Hero might be one group of just one person because Hero is important (of course, the book is about him).

The second group might consist of his friends. Even though they are individuals in their own right, in this scene there are simply too many of them to describe as separate individuals. Instead, describe each friend as a member of a group. Preferably, don’t even name which character is performing a particular action, just let the reader know it’s a friend. The specifics can be straightened out in a later scene involving fewer characters. Like when the fight scene is being relived later. Then each character’s actions can be given due attention.

The third group could consist of all of the hero’s enemies. Sure, they are different individuals and come to the fray with different agendas and weapons and backgrounds. But for this scene they are all villains and that’s all the reader needs to know. Again, if it’s essential to know which villain did which dasterdly deed, it can all be explained later.

And that’s the Rule of Three. Simple isn’t it? It makes following stories easier for the reader which, after all, is the whole point. And that’s my post… and my hint… for today.

4 responses to “Working Writer Tip: The Rule of Three”

  1. That is a great tip! I think I will try that next time I’m trying to write about many characters…like in a town meeting scene I’m thinking of that really needs a rewrite! Thanks. (Shelley from True Writers Group)

    • Glad you found this post helpful. It’s amazing how little tips can sometimes make a difference in our work. Hugs and kisses to you and hope your wip is great. Let me know how it turns out.

  2. Enjoyed your post. Thank you for the tip. We can all learn a new trick no matter where we are in our writing.
    Cierra James

    • That’s partly why I did it and I hope other writers out there (the ones who aren’t already giving workshops, etc) do the same with tips they have learned here and there. The other reason is that teachers can’t stop teaching.

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