How can we make use of the powerful rule of three in our writing?
Melissa Dahl, writing for the American NBC news site, uses the example of the spooky and frequent phenomenon of three celebrities dying in quick succession. Her example: Ed McMahon dying on 23 June, 2009, followed two days later by Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Some of my kin believed in the death by threes. If two relatives passed away within a few months of each other, the speculation was when—not if—the third death would occur.
There is no logic to the rule of three. According to Dahl, it is human to look for order in an often random world. We identify patterns, even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny, to make sense of what happens to us and around us.
The rule of three is a strong pattern, embedded in western literature and culture.
Fairy tales Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Blind Mice. The Three Little Pigs.
Fiction titles The Three Musketeers. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Eat, Pray, Love.
Fiction structure Trilogies. Three-act plays. Stories and movies often contain a third item or development, that relates to the previous two items or developments by extending, augmenting or contradicting them.
Phrases Location, location, location. Blood, sweat and tears. I came, I saw, I conquered. Every Dick, Tom and Harry.
Joke structure X, Y and Z went into the pub.
Developing a tripartite structure in writing
Because the rule of three is so dominant in western culture, it makes sense to considering seeing if it works for your story idea. For example, could your character–
- experience two failures or problems, before finding success?
Climber fails to summit twice, and then succeeds.
- get involved with two ‘bad’ people before finding the ‘good’ one?
The prince asks the two evil step-sisters to try on the glass slipper, before asking Cinderella.
- undertake three tests or challenges, known beforehand (Son, you must bring back three magical items) or realised retrospectively?
Luke Skywalker must destroy the Death Star, win over Leia and learn to use the Force.
- journey to three places?
Eat, Pray, Love
- experience three transformational events/lessons?
Dickens’ The Christmas Carol
Many popular how-to writing books promote the practice of daily writing. The rationale is that fronting up to the page or screen daily not only helps writers establish and continue a writing habit but also learn how to tap into their creativity.
Daily writing is not a huge ask. But most of the books suggest specifics about how it should happen. For example, author Julia Cameron, in The Right to Write, recommends the following:
- Write three pages daily. Filling at least three pages each day helps writers push their boundaries, to explore and create.
- Write longhand.Writing by hand is thought by some to establish a strong creative connection between hand and brain.
- Write immediately upon waking. Starting the day writing, with a rested mind, is thought to help writers tap into their imagination.
- Do all the above for three months. Keep an action alive for three months, and it becomes habit, part of your life.
When people say they ‘write’ each day, they may be referring to a number of writing activities—sketching ideas, drafting, rewriting. But many how-to-write gurus preference a particular form of daily writing, called freewriting.
In freewriting, you are asked to engage your subconscious. Toss out the outlines and logical analysis. Instead, write freely, meaning whatever pops into your brain. Let words form on the paper or screen. Give yourself permission to rant and rave, rock and roll, record secrets that no one else will see. And forget the ‘finish your spinach before you can have your dessert’ rule. When one idea peters out, drop it and move on. Do not stop to correct or rewrite.
I find the results of freewriting can liberate, but is it for everyone?
How it helps
Some writers become attuned to freewrite each day and enjoy its benefits:
- In setting a goal to write each day, and striving to meet this goal, you are carried over the first, scary writing bridge, the one between the self who wants to write and the self who is writing. A writer.
- Daily freewriting gives you creative permission to write whatever you want, no matter how silly, crazy, non-PC. With practice, your subconscious may toss in odd but interesting ideas and associations, which give you a different, enriched perspective.
- The process lets you play with writing before moving on to undertake issues of correctness.
- This open-ended approach may help you identify your natural writing style, discover topics that appeal to you, or explore ‘unfinished business’ in your life.
How It Hinders
Some people find daily freewriting more frustrating than empowering. What can go wrong?
- When you already have a writing project, freewriting may seem an additional, irrelevant task.
- You may prefer a more structured approach, such as responding to a writing prompt.
- Rather than removing restrictions, you may find freewriting makes you more anxious, feeling less in control.
- Composing three pages daily may seem a huge obstacle.
- Freewriting may make you feel less creative if your mind goes to uninteresting ideas or gives you writer’s block.
If you haven’t used freewriting, it’s worth giving it a go to decide if it suits you.
I have found that writing junk simply to meet a three-page requirement does not work for me. If I start with an interesting idea, or am given a writing prompt–such as the phrase ‘I remember. . . ‘– I can get into the flow.
Other playful experimentation
- Do you frequently remember your dreams? If so, writing as soon as you awake can help you capture images, names, situations.
- Freewriting longhand may give your brain more time to reflect on ideas. Work out if longhand instead of keyboard writing supports you.
- Stick with the 90 days of freewriting, but use this time to analyse what works for you and what doesn’t.
The 2013 Varuna-Sydney Writers’ Festival finished Tuesday night. As chair of the Varuna board, I was on tap to answer festival goers’ questions and greet our authors, but I still managed to attend all the sessions.
Many literary festivals have become behemoth events. Varuna has not. All presentations take place in the large dining room at the magnificent Carrington Hotel, built in 1882. Having 200 people in one room, all listening to the same session, promotes a sense of literary camaraderie and enjoyable discussions amongst listeners.
Why attend a writers’ festival? It offers a fantastic way to discover new writers. You are confronted with new and different ideas, from the philosophical to the writing-technical. You have the opportunity to discuss issues with others in the audience, or with the writers themselves. And, like the varuna butterflies pictured on the left, you can flit to whatever interests you, drink ideas on offer, and discover new, nourishing books and authors.
Varuna provided its audience with a great line-up of talent this year.
- Michelle de Kretser, one of our most respected, award-winning writers, discussed her new novel, Questions of Travel. She explores thorny issues, such as who gets to travel, why people choose or are forced to travel, and how guidebooks both help and hinder our travelling experiences.
- Geordie Williamson is a major literary critic as well as a member of the local Blue Mountains Council. In The Burning Library, he discusses Aussie authors and books that have been almost forgotten.
- Three young debut novelists, grouped under the heading, Landscapes of Love and Loss, read from their new work. Berndt Sellheim: Beyond the Frame’s Edge. Yvette Walker: Letters to the End of Love. Jessie Cole: Darkness on the Edge of Town, shortlisted in major literary competitions.
- Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John, refers to the first Australian woman shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Trinca is managing editor of The Australian. I especially liked hearing how she searched for information, and I admired her ethical stance when delving into someone’s life.
- American Cheryl Strayed talked about her best-selling memoir, Wild. Her view that she could not write this account earlier says something about letting life-changing experiences ‘age’ properly.
- Hugh Mackay, the famed social commentator, discussed his latest book, The Good Life, about engaging meaningfully with others.
- Anne Summers, famed social commentator and feminist, discussed her new book, The Misogyny Factor. The book details how powerful women, especially in politics, are pilloried by the press, male politicians, political cartoonists etc.
- Three novelists discussed their new work. Jesse Blackadder’s historical fiction, Chasing the Light, about the first women adventurers in Antarctica. Local author Mark O’Flynn’s The Forgotten World, a comic account of a forgotten encampment here in the mountains. Julienne van Loon‘s novella, Harmless, about a journey, with a modern interpretation of Buddhist stories.
- Ramona Koval, famous as the past presenter of the popular (but now defunct) radio program, The Book Show, has written a memoir, By the Book. An engaging speaker, she talked about being the child of two Holocaust survivors, growing up in Australia, and her love of reading.
- Dermot Healy, Irish poet, novelist, and playwright, read from his novel, Long Time, No See. It has all the quirkiness, magic, and intimacy often found in Irish works. And hearing it read with an Irish accent was particularly charming.
- I enjoyed hearing three writers discuss the short story form. Georgia Blain: The Secret Lives of Men. Cate Kennedy: Like a House on Fire. Josephine Rowe: Tarcutta Wake.
- Local writer Jane Skelton launched her debut short fiction collection, Lives of the Dead. The event was sponsored by the publisher, Spineless Wonders, which specialises in short fiction and electronic (spineless) delivery.
- I enjoyed the panel session of writers who had contributed their migration stories to the new anthology, With Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home. The comments gave me an insight into my feelings about a step I took years ago, to be part of Australia.
- Another highlight was having a seat on the ‘poetry bus’ to Jenolan Caves, where a poetry reading was held in a large cave. Poets: Sandy Holmes, Philip Hammial, David Brooks, Bronwyn Lea, Aboriginal Australian Lionel Fogarty, Kate Fagan, Irish Dermot Healy, and American Devin Johnston.
In Part 1, I explained writer Shirley Jackson’s views about important issues writers should address when converting a real-life anecdote to fiction. The sample anecdote she used—which I refer to in this post—is found in Part 1.
I once wrote a short story, based on a real event when I worked at a day centre for emotionally disturbed adults. It involved three main characters—an over-bearing director, a client going off his meds, and an unhappy staff member. I made changes to ensure the real people were not identifiable.
I showed a writing consultant the story. He hated it. I entered it in a couple of short story contests. It didn’t win. Members of my writing group suggested changes so I made major revisions and later on asked a professional writer to read it. She also found it problematic.
I loved the story, so what was the problem? It was only after reading Shirley Jackson’s essay that I realised what was wrong. I had let the real events dominate instead of focusing on creating believable fiction. Writer Alice Munro explains:
Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.
Jackson suggested specifics for successfully fictionalising a real-life anecdote.
Help your readers get emotional.
An anecdote that you are part of—directly or indirectly—snags your imagination because of the emotions it evokes. Even years later, remembering the event may call up the original emotion you felt then—hate, happiness, fear, excitement.
Your readers do not have this incident-emotion link so you need to create it. Do so by conveying your characters’ feelings as well as their thoughts, actions, reactions.
Give each character a ‘face’.
Jackson used face to mean a distinct personality. A short story has limited textual space. To create distinct individuals, concentrate on what Jackson called the ‘small things’: ‘gestures, turns of speech, automatic reactions.’
For your major characters, make them stand out by giving each one a distinct personality trait. Jackson’s example was to make a village woman self-disparaging:
‘. . . [W]hen someone praises her cakes she answers that they’re really not very good, actually; she made much, better cakes for the church fair last year; she just wishes that no one would even taste a piece of this year’s cake, because it’s really not any good at all . . . . ‘
Jackson believed that once the major personality trait was established, no more description was needed. Readers would generalise from the specific to decide if a character was likeable or not, trustworthy or not.
Small descriptors can also be used to ‘spotlight’ minor characters. Jackson imagined the village minister having an habitual gesture when he was worried. She thought this single small gesture—covering his eyes with his hand—was more effective than giving readers a whole ‘ biography’ of character details.
Sketch some ideas.
The first step in transforming your incident into fiction is experimentation. Jackson suggested ‘sketching in lightly’ to discover who and what works best in terms of creating fiction. Instead of having the village women as stage props, she characterised them, imaging them as a ‘tightly knit group, interested in their own concerns, and as resentful of outsiders as any of us.’
She believed that following a single character ‘from beginning to end’ focused a story. You can experiment by playing with who ‘owns’ the story, and considering what perspective they may have.
A ‘what-if’ approach also allows for experimentation. Jackson posed questions:
What if the women are quarrelling and the minister planned the village fair as an attempt to make peace? What if the rich visitor is shy and wants to be liked? What if the chauffeur is an outsider? A local man?
Limit the timeframe and support it with a backstory.
Less can be more in terms of fictional time. Jackson suggested reducing the story’s timeframe to the ‘actual moments of the raffle’. But the story also needs sufficient ‘telling’ conversations and incidents—the backstory—to enable readers to understand the impact of the raffle. Jackson’s suggestion: Show how the village women look at the visitor’s car and what they say to each other about this.
Jackson stressed the importance of ‘telegraphing’ the story’s main point. You do this by creating an early incident, and then connecting it with the final major event. Her example was to establish an early incident—the visitor buys a cake at one of the festival stalls and a village woman reacts negatively. Later, when the visitor wins the coveted quilt, the villager again reacts, an escalation from the earlier event.
Ensure your characters partake.
Jackson believed every character must in some way ‘partake’, to become an essential part of the story, someone ‘peculiar to this story and no other.’
She imagined adding to the story a boy as a minor character. If the boy climbs a tree to watch the raffle, this adds local colour—but does nothing in terms of story-building.
But what if the boy climbs an apple tree, its branches overhanging the visitor’s car, and deliberately drops apples onto the car’s roof? Now his actions reinforce the central conflict, villagers vs. outsider. He ‘exists nowhere else in the world than in this story and this village, and it must be made clear that this is where he belongs.’
Shake, snarl, sneak
One danger in using a real-life anecdote is to retell it exactly as it happened. Jackson suggested that you seek fictional variations. Attack the original ‘the way a puppy attacks an old shoe’—‘shake it, snarl at it, sneak up on it from various angles.’ Some permutations:
- Start at the end. The narrator could be an outsider, relating the fair event. Maybe it is an ex-villager who still loves the place but is sympathetic to the summer visitor.
- Turn the story inside out. The visitor’s two small children could be placed on the outskirts of the fair, playing cooperatively with some village children. Focusing on the children could create a telling contrast to the adults’ behaviour.
- Turn the story outside in. A character’s motive could be reversed. What if the visitor is determined to get the quilt, so much so that she employs ‘highhanded maneuvering’ to ensure winning it?
Jackson, Shirley (1969). ‘Experience and Fiction.’ Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. London: Michael Joseph.
© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog, 2013
Creating fiction based on real life events presents some challenges. So I was excited to discover an old essay on this topic, by one of America’s famed short story writers, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Jackson identifies issues worth thinking about when you are turning a real-life anecdote into a short story.
Where to get story ideas
Jackson was often asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you ever manage to think them up?
She believed stories originate in a writer’s personal experience, the ‘everyday happenings and emotions’. But fiction writers rarely rely on a single inspiration. They draw on ‘many little gestures and remembered incidents and unforgettable faces’. Perhaps this multiple borrowing is why writers often give such unsatisfying answers when asked, Where did you get that idea?
Recognising and analysing
Jackson did not believe turning life events into fiction was a ‘mystic’ process. She stressed the importance for writers to use recognition and analysis.
Writers need to recognise, and capture, useful personal experiences. Once Jackson was trying to open the door of her old fridge, which stuck in wet weather. Her daughter asked why she didn’t use magic. Jackson could have kept yanking on the fridge door. Instead, she sat down and considered her daughter’s question. The result was a story about some children, a fridge, and magic. This example illustrates the importance of paying attention to ideas when they appear. Much may be revealed—if we are receptive.
(Jackson later sold the story and used the money to buy a new fridge.)
Drawing on trash ‘n treasure
Nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something . . .
Imagine your brain as a huge trash ‘n treasure shop. Squirrelled away in the shop is everything in your life that your mind remembers, everything it has caught and stored. Experiences, feelings, dreams, conversations. Others’ accounts. Material from books, poems, films, and other media. You can ferret through the treasures (valuable stuff) and trash (oddities that might work), getting inspiration and finding details to include in your piece. The challenge is in choosing elements that best fit your subject.
Story-like Is Not Story
Anecdotes are story-like, often with a clear point or lesson, and they do well on their own. But when we try turning one into a full-blown, nuanced story, we can strike problems.
Jackson referred to a real-life anecdote from one of her students. The student thought she had made the anecdote into a ‘perfect’ short story. Here it is, summarised:
The high point of a village church fair is the raffling off of a beautiful quilt made by one of the local ladies. The quilt ‘has been the talk of the town for weeks. . . .’ and all the village women admire it and hope to win it. The raffle is held. Who wins the quilt? A summer visitor, ‘a wealthy woman who has no use for the quilt and no desire for it.’ She sends her chauffeur up to the stage to get the quilt and bring it back to her car.
Jackson wrote that the account was not a fictional story at all, but only a ‘bald description’. Why does it fail? Jackson gave three reasons:
- It does not fulfil fiction’s purpose
We have all heard someone in a fiction class/workshop protest any suggested changes to their story, on the grounds that ‘It really happened like that.’ Jackson pointed out that the purpose of real-life anecdote differs from that of fiction. The real-life anecdote aims to tell the truth—This really happened, no matter how far-fetched. Fiction aims to engage readers—Imagine this. Stories do have an inner ‘truth’ or plausibility, but it differs from real-life truth. Not having to deal with real-life truth is liberating. Writers can take from the anecdote whatever seems useful. They may discard bits, add new material, or twist elements to develop something quite different.
- It does not get readers emotionally involved
Jackson wrote that readers become more emotionally invested when they know what characters feel. The anecdote, as it stands, does not provide a sense of the characters’ emotions, nor how their feelings change within the story.
- Its stakes are too low
Jackson thought the anecdote did not bring anything important to the fiction table. Its main point—that the woman who wins the raffle is the only one who does not want the quilt—is simply coincidence.
Jackson decided to detail how the student’s tale could be transformed into an effective story:
. . . [T]he same incident, carefully taken apart, examined as to emotional and balanced structure, and then as carefully reassembled in the most effective form, slanted and polished and weighed, may very well be a short story.
My next post covers Jackson’s specific changes.
Shirley Jackson (1969). ‘Experience and Fiction.’ Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. London: Michael Joseph.
© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion,2013
I start descending Perry’s Lookdown, a popular trail in the upper Blue Mountains. I veer off on a side track to reach the cliff edge and perch on a large grey rock, where I can admire the panoramic view. On the other side of the wide valley below me, sandstone cliffs are shrugging off morning shadows. Shafts of sunlight punctuate rising mist. Wattlebirds, daredevil acrobats, zip over my head before plunging over the cliff edge in front of me.
It’s the perfect place to reflect on Cheryl Strayed‘s recent memoir, the hugely popular (Oprah-selected) Wild: From lost to found.
Her account falls into the memoir category, How I Turned My Life Around. To get a grip on personal issues, she challenged herself to hike a slab of the Pacific Crest Trail. Some 1,000 miles. With no experience in long-distance walking. And doing it solo.
I liked her life story, and I particularly enjoyed its structure.
Memoirs tend to use a chronological structure. Strayed’s account does not. She chose to focus on two past periods in her life. Her lost period covers her troubled childhood, teen, and adult years. Her found period concerns issues and insights that emerge during her ‘pilgrimage’ hike, which she undertook 17 years ago. Alternating these two past periods creates a repeating structure where sections about me lost are followed by sections about me found.
The alternating structure has advantages. You can use it to achieve the following.
Keeps readers hooked
Telling a life story chronologically provides a familiar story arc, for readers and the writer. The story usually starts early, with the author introducing herself as a small child or baby. Some accounts start before birth to provide the family’s back story. The story typically ends in the present day.
The downside is that this approach may not keep readers hooked, wanting to read more. And if the early material is unrelentingly negative (I was abused) or positive (I was always happy), readers may assume the rest of the book will be more of the same.
Complexity appeals to many readers, holding their attention earlier, and perhaps maintaining it to the last page. The alternating structure is complex because it gives writers two poles to wind their story around. Strayed works the two poles, maintaining a good balance between lost and found. She shares as many interesting bits about her trail experience as she does about earlier issues affecting her life.
Provides a familiar structure
Although the chronological approach is more common, the alternating pattern is a familiar one. Many novels establish a tag team—two characters, time periods, locations—to develop the story.
Sets an interpretative frame
The alternating structure can support showing a more dynamic recent past, one still forming and capable of further change. Strayed is not walking the trail as a fulfilled, mindful person, a winner. She searches her soul, faces many problems, stares down some demons. Eventually, her physical and mental journeys meld, and she starts to put her more distant past into perspective. This open-ended approach is a pleasant change from the memoir where the author stays in the unassailable present, everything resolved and safely tucked away.
Provides opportunities for change
I have little patience reading about one-dimensional people—the totally mad mother, the ever-clever child. Lives are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak.
The non-sequential approach may help push writers to this mixture because they are working with what’s important at each point, rather than what comes next in the timeline. And one of the important elements may be the changes that take place in people important to the writer.
Strayed’s book centres around two people, her mother and her ex-husband. Each time she writes about one or the other, she provides a slightly different take, a new grain of information. By the book’s end, both of them have been fleshed out as realistic, complex people. It works the other way as well. Each time Strayed returns to her trail experience, I found it impossible to guess what she would write about next.
All writing is shaped, and writers using a chronological approach may achieve the same goal. But the chronological format may encourage writers to throw in so much material that the theme of their life can be obscured. If Strayed’s book were a piece of music, her walking goal provides an underlying rhythm, supporting the melody that emerges from the alternating stories she chooses to tell.
If you are writing a memoir or a personal story, it could be useful to try this structure and see where it leads you.
I was going to dedicate a big swath of the day to working on my current writing project. The hours stretched before me, enticingly empty.
Then the possum got stuck in our chimney.
Writing was replaced by a rescue attempt, involving ladder, long rope, and the partial dismantling of our slow combustion stove. Web accounts advised leaving a rope dangling in the chimney to enable the possum to escape. And to put up a note nearby to remind me, preferably before lighting a fire, that the rope was still up there.
I read some hilarious accounts of dealing with the varmints. My favourite involved the possum that shot out of the fireplace, knocked over things in the loungeroom, fought the owner’s Doberman—and won—then bolted out the door, leaving sooty paw prints all over a brand-new pure white carpet.
I resigned myself to not getting much writing done that day. But I was surprised to find that between rescue tasks, I still managed to get stuck into my project.
Picking up the threads of writing may be easy after a single interruption. But with multiple interruptions—the second, the third, the fortieth–it’s tempting to push artistic pursuits into the spare corners of the day, the space left after everything and everyone else is attended to. Writing should not be the reward for completing other stuff, but the main game for a period, whether that is an hour or a whole day.
To have a more productive writing period, it can help to set writing dates with yourself. How does that work?
- Set a start date|
Set a specific time to begin. I’ve been making a 10am deadline for me to be sitting at my desk, computer turned on, ready to go. It was hard at first, but I am now hooked on the virtuous feeling of starting to write when I promised myself I would. Having a specific start time also provides a reality check, giving a realistic sense of how much other stuff you can get done before your writing time.
- Set an end date
Our brain creates a huge writing distraction, sending SOS messages about all the non-writing tasks to do. You’re in the midst of writing a scene and suddenly remember you need to make a doctor’s appointment, ring a friend, check on your flight. Setting a definite finish time teaches your brain to put its reminding on hold.
- Honour the date
The specific period is for writing, nothing else. Honour this time by not multitasking or getting distracted with non-writing activities. Do you really need to answer the phone or check emails, tweets and Facebook messages? When doing Web research, if you keep getting sidetracked with IBMS (Interesting But Minor Stuff), set a separate time for Web work.
- Visualise specific outcomes
It is easier to handle interruptions if you have in mind a specific outcome for each writing period. Will you finish a first draft? Revise your chapter two? Identify what you can realistically accomplish in the time available.
- Make the date formal
Some writers find it helpful to put their writing dates in their diary. It keeps the period clear of other commitments and makes it easier to say no. You don’t need to say you’re writing, simply that you’re not available. Sorry, I’m not free on Thursday until after 3pm.
And the possum in my chimney? I thought it had escaped, climbing the rope to freedom. But possums are nocturnal creatures, and it must have been napping. That evening, I heard a scratching and banging. Glancing at the stove’s glass door, I saw a furry bundle drop down into the ashes. And there was the possum, on the other side of the glass, peering at me with its big black eyes.
Phase 2 of Operation Possum began. The doors leading off from the loungeroom were closed, the lights dimmed, the front door opened. Next, we created an ingenious ‘possum chute’,with a ladder and cardboard, to point the animal toward the door. I opened the stove door and kept very still.
The possum hopped out onto the floor, calm as anything. It then sauntered to the door and vanished into the night. The only thing left was its autograph—possum prints on my sign: