Thursday, May 30, 2013

Writing to the Rule of Three

by Linda S. Clare, @Lindasclare
MorgueFile: silverhairster
Writing isn’t an exact science. Maybe that’s what Somerset Maugham meant when he said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” Make that steep learning curve a bit more manageable by using the Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three in Fiction. Since nobody knows what the rules are, the “rule” is really a guideline. Don’t be a slave! Use the Rule of Three as a guideline—to help you write better back story (flashbacks) clauses and dialogue. Here’s how:
Back Story:
Limit (especially in opening chapters) back story/flashbacks to the Rule of Three. Use three or fewer sentences of back story before at least touching back on the real time scene. If you allow your reader to become immersed in the back story without revisiting the real time scene, that reader is likely to forget about the real time scene. 
Use the Rule of Three in description. A list of three (this, this and that) feels satisfying to the reader. Pay special attention to threes when you want to establish a pattern for the reader to remember. If you tend to draft exhaustive lists of description in setting or character, edit out all but the best three to give your reader a quick and complete picture of that person, place or thing.
Write no more than three sentences spoken continuously by the same speaker. After three, the dialogue becomes a speech. Break up with action, narration or counter dialogue. Write no more than three exchanges between two characters. Add a “beat” of action or narration to break up and keep reader engaged.Try introducing a third character into a two-person scene to shift the focus (camera) and make the dialogue/tension more complex.
Linda S. Clare is the author of women’s fiction, including The Fence My Father Built (Abingdon 2009) and upcoming A Sky without Stars (Abingdon 2014). She teaches writing at a community college and for George Fox University and lives in the Northwest with her family and three wayward cats. Visit her at or connect at or @Lindasclare on Twitter.